WHO, Unicef call for sugar tax in 2019 Budget to combat ‘alarming’ obesity rate

Julia Chan

The World Health Organisation and Unicef are both advocating for a tax on sugary drinks in Malaysia’s 2019 Budget, arguing it will be beneficial both fiscally and to address Malaysia’s obesity rate. — AFP pic

KUALA LUMPUR, Oct 18 — The World Health Organisation and Unicef are both advocating for a tax on sugary drinks in Malaysia’s 2019 Budget, arguing it will be beneficial both fiscally and to address Malaysia’s obesity rate.

WHO Representative to Malaysia Dr Lo Ying-Ru and Unicef Representative to Malaysia Marianne Clark-Hattingh cited Mexico as an example of a country which benefited from higher taxes on sugary drinks.

“Mexico was one of the first countries in the world to introduce a sugary drinks tax in 2014, and studies there have found that a 10-12 per cent price increase delivers a greater reduction in consumption than that of tobacco taxes. Sugary-drink purchases fell 5.5 per cent in the first year, and 9.7 per cent in the second, with the largest declines in consumption among low-income families,” they said in a statement here today.

“The evidence is clear: increasing the price of sugary drinks will decrease their consumption,” they said, adding that 36 countries around the world are implementing some form of tax on sugary drinks, including Brunei Darussalam, France, Saudi Arabia, Thailand and the United Kingdom.

When Mexico was considering the introduction of a sugary drinks tax, 70 per cent of the population supported the proposal on condition that revenues would go back towards other health related expenses.

“To date, over US$5.7 billion has been generated, and part of that revenue has been used to install drinking water fountains in all schools across the country,” they said.

In 2016, WHO called for all countries to levy tax on drinks with added sugar to raise their prices by at least 20 per cent.

The statement noted that Malaysia was among the fattest countries in Asia with nearly half of its adults being classified as overweight or obese, and 12.7 per cent of its children also classified as obese.

“There is scientific evidence of a clear relationship between consumption of sugary drinks, weight gain and obesity. A single can of soft drink contains on average 8.5 teaspoons of sugar—the daily limit for a child aged four to five years.

According to the National Health and Morbidity Survey (Adolescent Health Survey) 2017, more than 1 in 3 Malaysian students consume at least one can of soft drink a day.

“In the current context, the most disadvantaged groups are often left with little alternatives as unhealthy food and drinks are usually cheaper than healthier options,” they said, adding that a recent Unicef survey showed 97 per cent of low cost Malaysian households say high food prices prevent them from preparing healthy meals for their children.

“A tax on sugary drinks is not a silver bullet, and it is certainly not the only measure needed to address the obesity crisis. However, it would have a direct impact on consumption of sugary drinks. When implemented in combination with other measures—such as education, subsidies on healthy foods, nutrition labelling, and food marketing regulations—the cumulative impact on obesity would be strong.

“Just like taxes on alcohol and tobacco, making unhealthy drinks more expensive would be a positive step. Poorer households in particular are more responsive to price increases and are more likely to limit their sugar consumption, thus reducing healthcare expenditures and improving their wellbeing in the long run,” they said.

WHO and Unicef called on the government and corporate sector to make healthy, nutritious food accessible and affordable, especially for the poorest income groups.

“Others have important roles too: chefs can create simple and nutritious recipes, restaurants can promote healthy meals at reduced prices, the government and municipalities can subsidize healthy, local food and school meals.”

WHO and Unicef said that there is an urgent need to act to improve the health of this generation and the next and they were ready to support Malaysia’s efforts through a comprehensive strategy that includes a tax on sugary drinks.

“Taxing sugary drinks is a smart choice for the Government, with both health and fiscal benefits. It should be seen as a start, not an end point, in making Malaysia’s population—and budget—fitter and healthier,” they said.

Groups like the Galen Centre for Health and Social Policy said that a multi-pronged approach was needed to increase education and awareness and proposed the government enforced healthy food standards in schools and hostels nationwide to improve the nutrition of food served to Malaysian schoolchildren. 

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