There has been a lot of controversy surrounding the sugar tax which was officially implemented on April 1. The tax, equivalent to a levy of about 11 percent on can of coke, is aimed at tackling South Africa's obesity epidemic and the diseases associated with it. Health-e News busted five common myths about sugar, the tax and the risks and rewards to health.
Why tax sugar drinks because:
- Jobs will be lost hurting the South African economy
Industry has repeatedly published different estimates for how many jobs will be lost across the sugary beverage food chain. In May last year, Beverage Association of South Africa (BevSA) said that they anticipate job losses in the region of 24, 000. They had also previously claimed that up to 72, 000 people could lose their jobs across the value chain. But Treasury published a report in June estimating job losses could be as low as 1,475.
Public health advocates argue that small short-term losses are dwarfed by the substantial cost to the economy of treating lifestyle diseases. Last month, Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi pointed out that "[y]ou cannot dream of growing your economy without good health".
- The health of South Africans is not affected by sugar
South Africans have increasingly been higher-than-average consumers of sugar and sweetened beverages. A study published as far back as 2007 in the journal of Public Health Nutrition found that South African toddlers in urban areas drank more sugary drinks than milk.
We also have rapidly increasing rates of obesity, being the fattest nation in sub-Saharan Africa, and the diseases linked to it. Diabetes now kills more women than any other disease. Drinking just one sugary drink a day increases the risk of being overweight by 27 percent for adults and 52 percent for children, according to a 2009 study published in the same journal. Moreover, a 2012 study published in Circulation found that drinking one to two fizzy drinks a day can increase one's risk of developing diabetes by more than 25 percent.
- The tax won't reduce consumption
A number of other countries and areas within countries have instituted sugar taxes amid claims that the intervention won't have any public health effect as people will continue to drink the same amount of fizzy drinks. Mexico introduced a 10 percent tax on sugary drinks in 2014 and saw a 7.6 percent decrease in sales of sugary drinks and an upturn in sales of bottled water within two years, according to 2017 study led by researchers from the University of North Carolina. It also found that consumption reduced the most in poor communities, which is significant because lifestyle diseases can be financially catastrophic to poor families with less access to healthcare.
- Eating sugar is the same as drinking sugar
Many have criticised the tax because it doesn't address the sugar people consume in food products which also contributes to the rise in obesity, but liquid sugar has been found to be more dangerous than the solid version. Drinking calories in the form of sugar instead of eating it can leave people feeling less full, found a 2010 study in the International Journal of Obesity. Eating a muffin or cake, for example, will leave a person more satiated than drinking a cool drink which could lead to the consumption of more calories to achieve a feeling of fullness.
Researchers from Penn State University found that people who drank a sugary beverage with their meal consumed on average more than 100 calories more than those who did not, identifying sugary beverages as an independent risk-factor for obesity.
- Industry wants to help solve the obesity problem
Industry fiercely fought the implementation of the tax through a fear-inspiring job losses media campaign, including paying for a study to be conducted, and by lobbying workers and government. But they have also publicly said they want to work with government to tackle obesity.
When the Healthy Living Alliance protested outside of Coca-Cola's headquarters in Johannesburg last year, Maserame Mouyeme, head of Public Affairs, Communication and Sustainability said that "we want to fight obesity" and "work with you in the process of finding a solution". But industry bodies like BevSA continue to ignore the independent health risks sugary drinks pose to South African consumers while companies have consistently targeted poorer communities to increase their sales.
Research from Priority Cost-Effective Lessons for Systems Strengthening South Africa, based at Wits University, noted that Coca-Cola, the country's largest soft-drink franchise, has identified its future growth strategy targeting those falling under the living standards measure (LSM) of one to six "with a specific focus on LSM 1–3" — the poorest consumers. The beverage industry also spends more than R500-million a year on advertising sugary drinks, "including other promotions that appeal to kids", according to 2017 data from market research company Nielsen AdEx. This marketing does not include education around the risks of sugar or how much these products contribute to the recommended daily intake of sugar. Just one 500ml bottle of a typical soft-drink in South Africa contains around 10 teaspoons of sugar, almost double the six teaspoons per day recommended by the World Health Organisation.