Soda tax may sound chic health-wise, but dietitians say it’s a feeble idea

Syed Jaymal Zahiid
The Pakatan Harapan administration says it may consider imposing tax on sodas to curb Malaysians’ addiction to sugar. ― Bernama pic

KUALA LUMPUR, Sept 5 ― As policymakers and health experts train their sights on soft drinks or sodas ― blaming the fizzy beverage for the country’s growing obesity and diabetes cases ― the subject of a soda tax has come up.

The Pakatan Harapan administration said it may consider imposing tax on sodas to curb Malaysians’ addiction to sugar, which could also provide an alternative source of income to substitute the scrapped goods and services tax.

But from a health perspective, dietitians believe the idea may be misguided.

There is no denying that sugar is at the epicentre of serious health-related problems like obesity, diabetes and even cancer.

Yet a study prepared and published by the Ministry of Health a few years ago found that much of the sugar consumed by Malaysians came from sweeteners used for popular local beverages like teh tarik or coffee instead of sodas.

Which is why dietitians like Brian Lian believe taxing soft drinks won’t help address the country’s health problem, nor would it contribute much income-wise since the average Malaysian actually drinks much less sodas than widely thought.

“For the purpose of increasing government revenue, if companies reduce sugar content in the products, then the government doesn’t stand to earn a lot from this tax,” Lian, who is attached to the Sarawak General Hospital, told Malay Mail.

“After all, artificial sweeteners are available and reducing sugar is the intended effect anyway.

“I say this because sugar content in our own local food is just as high, if not higher than many soft drinks available in our market,” he added.

If the primary end-goal is merely to cut sugar intake, then a soda tax may work, Lian said, pointing to the success of governments like the United Kingdom and Mexico in forcing food-and-beverage companies to put less sugar in their products.

But the benefit ends there. Studies of the tax in countries that levy high-sugar soft drinks like in the US showed the move had little effect on countering obesity ― instead of forcing people to drink less soda, it simply drove them to look for cheaper alternatives.

This was corroborated by the research conducted by UK-based Institute of Fiscal Studies.

While the study showed that that the British government did succeed in lowering sugar intake by younger consumers in response to a tax on drinks with sugar content higher than 5g per 100ml, it also found that consumers inclined towards high-sugar diets were undeterred by the price.

Tax fast food?

Lian said taxing sodas in Malaysia will likely produce the same ineffective result unless proactive measures are also taken to address consumer addiction to cheap junk or fast food, the chief culprits behind Malaysia’s pandemic health problems.

So the dietitian suggested the authorities tax fast food instead.

“For the purpose of promoting a healthy lifestyle, soda tax is one idea but I doubt it will give much benefit for this cause. Personally we should tax fast food instead,” he said.

The average sugar content in a typical single-patty cheeseburger itself is already high, averaging about six to nine grammes, which is around 36 per cent of the recommended daily intake for an adult on a 2,000-calorie diet.

That’s just the burger. If you count the sugar from the fries and soda that accompany the burger that make up your staple fast food meal today, the total sugar intake would far surpass the recommended daily intake.

The healthy amount of sugar consumed should be just five per cent of your daily caloric intake, or 25g, according to the World Health Organisation.

But the economic and political ramifications of making fast food more expensive could be huge.

Some of the fast food chains provide thousands of jobs to mostly Bumiputera youths, making  any additional tax politically risky for lawmakers as companies may be forced to cut jobs if revenue takes a hit from poorer sales.

Rozanna M. Yusly, head of dietetic services at University of Malaya Specialist Centre, argued that it would be better for the government to impose a high levy on sugar itself, although she is sceptical of views that taxation as a health incentive would yield the desired effect.

“If you tax sugar, it may push prices for all products that contain sugar to increase and we can hope it would deter people to consume less sugar,” she told Malay Mail.

“Or the companies could just maintain the price (and absorb the cost) and nothing will happen.”

Political ramification

But making raw sugar more expensive has more potential to curb sugar intake since all food products would be affected by the price increase, as opposed to just taxing fast food where stubborn eaters are still open to unhealthy foods elsewhere.

“If they don’t go to McDonald’s, they just go to the 7-11 next door,” Rozanna pointed out.

Campaigns for public awareness on the health hazards of an unhealthy diet have featured in all administrations, past or present, but a majority of the population continue to feed their addiction to junk and fast food thanks to cheap prices and accessibility.

A 2013 study by Taylor’s University found that more than 60 per cent of Malaysians eat out regularly, with just a third of them eating healthy cooked meals at home while the remaining few admitted to eating meals bought from eateries or fast food restaurants at least once a day.

This trend, reflected globally and seen as a direct effect of rapid urbanisation and a fast-pace lifestyle, suggests a majority of them patron food chains out of necessity.

And while food served at eateries are a much healthier option than that at fast food outlets, they tend to be fatty or high in sodium and sugar, making them less ideal health-wise.

“Cleaner” foods, on the other hand, are often expensive because they take effort to cook and use quality ingredients.

Yet health experts like Rozanna and Lian remain firm believers in public awareness campaigns, describing them as the most effective method to drive change.

“Giving people the knowledge so they can make informed choices is still the best way we have to find (different) ways to do it,” Rozanna said.

Lian said: “From the nutritional point of view, soda tax serves nothing more than to generate government revenue and does little to nothing to combat obesity and other sugar-related health risks.

“Personally I believe health promotion plays a greater role for this purpose in order for the population to make healthier decisions.”

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