Fierce sugary tax debate moves to parliament

Cape Town - The beverage industry and leading health experts have reiterated their arguments on South Africa's proposed tax on sugar-sweetened beverages.

The Parliamentary Standing Committee on Finance will conduct public hearings on Tuesday to discuss the planned tax on beverages such as soft drinks, energy drinks and sweetened milks by April 2017.

READ: Coca-Cola bankrolls IRR research on sugary tax in SA

Beverage taxes came into light with increasing concerns about the increasing epidemic of non-communicable diseases (NCDs), quality of life and health cost in South Africa, particularly obesity, cardiovascular diseases, type 2 diabetes and tooth decay.

The Beverage Association of South Africa (BevSA) reiterated on Monday that a sugary tax will damage South Africa's already ailing growth outlook. However, top global and South African scholars again expressed their support of the sugary drink tax.

'Economic devastation looms'

"A sugar tax would harm the beverages industry and the country’s economic growth prospects, while delivering very limited health benefits," said BevSA executive director Mapule Ncanywa in a statement.

"The proposed tax on sugar sweetened beverages will have substantial unintended economic consequences, at a time when the economy is facing strong headwinds, curtailing industry’s ability to enhance contribution to broader economic growth, job creation and sustainability."

BevSA also welcomed what it called a decision by the World Health Organisation (WHO) "not to endorse recommendations to impose a soft drinks tax on member states".

There has been no 'veto' - WHO

However, a WHO spokesperson explained to Fin24 that the WHO executive board asked the WHO secretariat for more information on a range of policy options and cost-effective interventions proposed by WHO to prevent and control noncommunicable diseases, including the use of taxation on SSBs, before the next World Health Assembly (22-31 May).

"There has been no “veto” of such interventions proposed by WHO or its executive board, including SSBs, despite industry statements and media reporting based on such statements," said communications officer Paul Garwood.

READ: #Sugartax: IRR climbs into media over Coke funding

Ncanywa said the call by the WHO executive board for technical consultation before the next World Health Assembly to review studies and documentation including methodology followed by WHO, is aligned with the view of BevSA that a comprehensive understanding of the role of sugar in the overall diet needs to be in place.

"BevSA has repeatedly called for more in-depth research before implementation of any tax and contends that a tax on SSBs is not the most effective way to tackle South Africa’s growing obesity levels. Research of the full range of health, regulatory and economic impacts of a tax is required and should include a total dietary intake study; a detailed socio-economic impact assessment study and regulatory impact assessment."

Beverage industry wants to help

Ncanywa said the association supports the idea that the intake of sugar to the daily diet should be moderated and that education about good eating habits among others is vital.

"Research has shown that reformulation of products, increased promotion of lower to zero calorie drinks and portion control through changes to pack sizes are among the most effective interventions to contribute to the reduction of obesity levels without causing negative economic impacts and job losses."

Industry members have already made significant progress in sugar reduction and reformulation, Ncanywa said.

READ: Ombudsman weighs in on IRR, Coca-Cola research debate

"Numerous programmes are underway to continue to reduce daily energy intakes from sugar sweetened beverages, including various Healthy Food Initiatives to help South Africans make healthy lifestyle choices, including resizing and reformulations of products and portion sizes."
She said the beverages industry made commitments to the health department, adding that it can be subjected to external verification. "These commitments will double the targeted calorie reductions that the proposed sugar tax aims to achieve."
Ncanywa said BevSA is committed to being part of the solution to reduce obesity in South Africa.

SA needs sugary tax - experts

Meanwhile, leading scholars on obesity and related diseases and members of the public health community have also emphasised their support for the sugar tax.

In a letter, they cited scientific evidence that links sugary drink consumption to obesity and related diseases and global evidence demonstrating the effectiveness of a tax on sugary drinks.

They strongly believe the taxation of sugary drinks is a critical, highly effective measure and part of a broader programme to address obesity and related diseases.

Prof Usuf Chikte, executive head at the department of Interdisciplinary Health Sciences at the University of Stellenbosch, who signed the letter, warned that the tobacco, alcohol and sugar industry fuel major NCDs such as cancers, lung disease, diabetes, tooth decay and cardiovascular diseases.  

"The conflict of interest in a healthier alternative and the reckless profit motive in the sales of these harmful products is self-evident," he said.

"Governmental policy makers need to be vigilant that these industries with their vast resources do not set the agenda to influence policy, research and guidelines in relation to appropriate health measures to combat NCDs," he cautioned.

A nanny state?

Another expert who signed the letter, Dr Sundeep Ruder, who is an endocrinologist, said often when people hear the word ‘tax’ there is a negative connotation attached to it, however this is not the case with the sugary tax.

"The intention is one of serving the people of South Africa for a greater good. For decades people have been misled by advertising that SSB’s are good for you. They have been sold false cause and effect relationship between SSB’s and health."

Ruder noted that critics may say that South Africa is turning into a ‘nanny state’ and that the government should not interfere in peoples choices, but the counter argument is that people have already been nannied into believing that SSB’s are good.

"This was achieved through industry mass advertising. The negative impact of SSB’s have never been advertised, so when people are choosing these products, they are not choosing with complete knowledge, they actually have no choice."

Read more on the sugary tax:

Treasury: Sugary beverages tax is not a stealth tax
Coca-Cola explains the sour side of a sugary tax on SSBs
Why is SA ignoring the abundance of sugary substitutes?
Why SA should resist power of Big Sugar to undermine public health
Sugar tax alone can't solve health problems - expert
How sugar tax will create future taxpayers
Sugar tax flaws – ‘Mathematical model’ based on speculation, assumption
Sugar tax could cause over 70 000 job losses - report

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