Tax could offer hope in SA’s obesity crisis

2016-08-24 06:00
PROF. KAREN HOFMAN, director of Priceless South Africa. Photo: Supplied

PROF. KAREN HOFMAN, director of Priceless South Africa. Photo: Supplied

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SOUTH AFRICANS are facing health risks because of obesity. This is increasing at an alarming rate as a result of the consumption of sugary drinks.

Professor Karen Hofman, director of Priceless South Africa, says the findings of research they have conducted show that inaction over the intake of sugary drinks could lead to a growing obesity epidemic. She says projections indicate that by 2017, there will be an additional 1,2 million obese adults in South Africa, with more than a quarter of this due to increased intake of sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs).

According to Hofman, an estimated 70% of women and a third of men are presently classified as overweight or obese. She says the increase in obesity works against the South African Department of Health’s target of reducing the number of people who are obese or overweight by 10% by 2020. Its strategic plan for lifestyle diseases identifies several cost-effective preventative interventions to achieve this, one of which is the implementation of the proposed SSB tax in 2017.

“Fiscal interventions like the taxation of sugar-sweetened beverages are a win-win. They raise revenue and at the same time effectively prevent disease and health expenditures,” said Hofman.

Hofman says the findings of Priceless South Africa, a research unit based at the Wits School of Public Health, has shown that a 20% tax on SSBs could reduce the number of obese people in South Africa by close to a quarter of a million within the first three years and could generate revenue of approximately R6 billion per annum.

According to Hofman, support for the proposed tax is growing, with some of South Africa’s leading health professionals endorsing the move. Representatives of the Public Health Community of South Africa have sent a letter to Treasury, signed by 34 leading individuals and institutions, endorsing implementing a sugar tax as an important and cost-effective first step in preventing obesity, endorsing the government’s decision.

Hofman points out that death rates from these obesity-related lifestyle diseases are growing fast.

In 2011, diabetes, which is preventable in many cases, was ranked as the second-leading cause of death for South Africans aged between 15 and 49.

“Moreover, moderate obesity is associated with an 11% increase in healthcare costs and severe obesity brings a 23% increase in these costs.

“Research shows that by 2030, total healthcare expenditure as a result of adult diabetes alone will cost South Africa between $1 billion and $2 billion.”

Hofman says the proposed SSB tax in 2017 will complement the World Health Organisation’s recommendation that added sugar be limited to 5% to 10% of daily caloric intake.

For adults with a normal weight, this equates to a maximum of six to 12 teaspoons of added sugar, whereas just one fizzy drink contains between seven to ten teaspoons of sugar with no nutritional benefit.

Adults who choose to consume just one SSB a day, which includes fruit juice, increases their likelihood of being overweight by 27%. This statistic almost doubles for children at an alarming 55%.

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