HILE it is right for the government to be concerned about the obesity levels among Malaysians, how will the sugar tax address this issue?
Obese people will continue to drink untaxed sweet drinks and food.
Under the new tax, 40 sen will be imposed on non-alcoholic beverages, except for milk-based drinks containing lactose with more than 5g of sugar per 100ml, for example, canned colas, energy and carbonated drinks, packet drinks and canned coffee drinks.
A 40 sen tax per litre will also be imposed on beverages with more than 12g of sugar per 100ml, for example, fruit and vegetable juices.
And a 40 sen per litre tax will be imposed on milk-based beverages that contain lactose for every 7g of sugar per 100ml, for instance, chocolate milk.
There is no evidence that sugar taxes can bring down obesity rates.
In fact, there is evidence to suggest that sugar taxes don’t work to combat obesity. The success stories of the sugar tax movement have reportedly taken place in Mexico and Berkeley, California, but the findings in the wake of the implementation of soda taxes have been misrepresented.
Evidence published by Mexico’s National Institute of Public Health shows that per capita consumption of sugary drinks was higher after a soda tax was introduced, but there was no significant change in consumption of soda in Berkeley after the tax was introduced.
Further, Harvard Medical School obesity expert Dr Fatima Cody Stanford expressed concern that soda taxes pushed consumers to equally unhealthy choices.
She said several factors played a role in obesity, including genes, sleep patterns and medications.
Would it not be more beneficial for public health organisations to promote healthy lifestyles, which naturally include lowering sugar consumption as a key element?
Sugar taxes are popular in Asean. Brunei and Thailand introduced them in 2017, while the Philippines did so last year.
Singapore recently conducted a public consultation on how to reduce consumption of sugary drinks.
The proposal included a tax and a ban on such beverages and their trademarks.
The advent of sugar taxes in Asean has parallels with plain packaging initiatives for cigar-ettes.
Thailand and Singapore have passed laws, and it has been reported that the Philippines and Malaysia are considering the same measures.
Just as for sugar taxes, the basis for such a move is shrouded with uncertainty and a lack of data to back up claims that plain packaging will reduce smoking rates in the long run.
Why sugar tax? Research and engagement on health issues should be done before taking policy action.
The related data for Malaysia does not look good. Malaysia has become one of Asia’s most obese countries, according to a study published in The Lancet medical journal in 2014, with almost half the population either obese or overweight.
This shows there is a need for a sensible health debate around responsible consumption. Selective taxation and other unproven measures are not the solution.
While Asean nations continue to regulate to help people live full lives, the public can’t always expect policy makers and legislators to make the right choices.
A solution could be to give manufacturers room to come up with solutions to health problems, and to ensure consumers can access information that enables them to make informed choices.
THUSITHA DE SILVA