INDIA – Junk food and sugar-sweetened beverages may attract higher taxes in the upcoming budget. In an effort to curb the growing incidence of lifestyle diseases like diabetes and obesity, the government is mulling an additional fat tax on sugary beverages and packaged food high on salt and saturated fats.

The proposal was made by the group of secretaries on health, sanitation and urban development in a recent meeting with PM Narendra Modi to discuss budget proposals, an official said.

The 11-member group has also suggested that proceeds from such higher taxes be used to increase the government’s spending on health.

“In our presentation to the PM, we suggested higher taxes on junk food and sugary beverages because consumption of such products is growing fast and fuelling several lifestyle diseases like obesity, diabetes and heart disorders.

We have also suggested that revenue earned from such tax be invested in health schemes,” said a member of the group.

The proposal for higher taxes on such products has been in the pipeline since April last year.

The government had also constituted an inter-ministerial committee headed by the health secretary to deliberate on the proposal to impose stringent measures including higher taxes and restrictions on endorsements and advertisements of such products on TV, mainly during prime time.

“The FSSAI (Food Safety and Standards Authority of India) is already working on mechanisms to regulate consumption of junk food.

This is crucial given the growing disease burden in India,” Health secretary C K Mishra said, adding the ministry was in support of the proposal made by the group of secretaries.

Of late, FSSAI has issued several guidelines to regulate junk food, including those on sale of such food in schools, and packaging norms.

India’s diabetes burden and the obesity problem have assumed serious levels.

Experts blame these on the consumption of sugary beverages and junk food. Every year, nearly 5.8 million Indians die of heart and lung diseases, cancer and diabetes.

In 2015, 69.1 million cases of diabetes were diagnosed in India.

The disease burden is also fast increasing among children. Globally, the trend is high among children under five years of age with at least 41 million found to be obese or overweight in 2014.

While the prevalence rate of obesity in this age group is still low in India at less than 5%, the WHO suggests it is rising at the fastest pace among all developing countries.

Between 1990 and 2014, the number of overweight children in low and middle-income countries more than doubled from 7.5 million to 15.5 million.

In 2014, almost half (48%) of all overweight and obese children under 5 years lived in Asia and a quarter (25%) in Africa.

“High consumption of sugary beverages contributes to multiple metabolic disorders due to accrual of body fat, as well as directly through excess non-esterified fatty acids (NEFAs), which impair critical functioning of the liver, pancreas and cellular functions,” said Dr Anoop Misra, chairman of Fortis CDOC Centre of Diabetes.

The government’s move is in line with the WHO which has been urging its member countries to regulate eating habits.

January 20, 2017;