Plans to reduce obesity by 10% amongst South Africans is a good move, but introducing a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs) by 20% is not acceptable, the Democratic Alliance's (DA) Wilmot James said.
"[It] will further increase food prices and hurt the poor who will not be able to afford alternate forms of sugar."
Research by the University of Witwatersrand found that a suggested 20% tax on SSBs could possibly reduce obesity in 220 000 adults.
SSBs include the following: still and carbonated soft drinks, fruit juices, sports drinks, energy drinks and vitamin waters, sweetened ice tea, lemonade, cordials and squashes.
In his budget speech on Wednesday 24 February 2016, Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan announced that a sugar tax will be levied with effect from 1 April 2017.
The DA indicated that the government will be campaigning for sugar and fat taxes as set-out in the Department of Health's (DoH) Strategy for Prevention and Control of Obesity in SA, which was released in December by Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi.
"I think the document Strategy for Prevention serves to fly a kite so that Health can take the temperature," James told Health24.
The DA is of the view that hiking taxes will only be partially effective in curbing obesity, adding that Motsoaledi must stay away from "interfering with the already overbearing tax regime".
"Taxes will partially reduce unhealthy food consumption and it is also difficult to compel consumers to eat healthier foods by making unhealthy foods expensive. There are always cheaper, fizzier and sweeter alternatives on offer," it said.
The party pointed out that in Mexico, where a 10% sugar tax was introduced, only a 6,4% drop in Coca Cola sales, a 10% decline in sugary beverage consumption and a 7% rise in sales of bottled water and milk was recorded.
"With such feeble results, proposed tax hikes will firstly take longer than the intended five years (2015/2020) to reduce obesity by 10%, secondly, the poor will have to bear the brunt of higher food prices over the entirety of this extended period."
The DA wants the health minister to rather focus on both diet and exercise interventions.
"Academic studies have revealed that South Africans have diets that lack fruit and vegetables but high in fat and sugar, as well as that most South Africans living in the rural areas and townships have limited access to facilities to exercise."
James said the DA recommends that government creates an Advisory Council on Healthy Lifestyles staffed by (food and sports) scientists and nutritionists who would advise:
a. the Minister of Health on creating incentives for healthy eating habits
b. the Minister of Basic Education on school diets, beverages that should be sold on school premises and increasing exercise opportunities
c. Minister of Cooperative Development and Traditional Affairs to work with all municipalities to set aside budget to build outdoor gyms for poor people who cannot afford Virgin Active.
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Meanwhile, the Congress of the People (COPE) urged Motsoaledi to act fast to curb the impact of sugar of the health of South Africans.
It called on the minister to obtain screening rights for "The Sugar Film" to be screened on several channels, as well as for the movie to be dubbed in other languages.
The film by Australian actor-turned-director Damon Gameua set out to expose hidden sugar in health foods and the impact it has on the body.
"The documentary shows how being on a sugar rich diet leads to the development of fatty liver and how it predisposes one to diabetes and heart problems," COPE spokesperson Dennis Bloem told Health24. "It is graphic, it is simple, it is personal. It will persuade more than statistics."