SOUTH AFRICA – A 20% tax on sugar-sweetened drinks could cut the number of obese South Africans by almost a quarter of a million, saving lives and money, local research has found.
The study is important, because it adds to the limited research available to low-and middle-income countries on this contentious issue.
Only a few countries have introduced taxes on sugared drinks and they have all encountered strong opposition from the soft-drink industry. Mexico imposed a sugar tax in January. At the end of February, Coca-Cola reported a 5% drop in sales in Mexico.
“It is the responsibility of the government to protect the health of its population. One way of doing so is through nudging people to make healthier and more sustainable choices,” said University of the Witwatersrand researcher Mercy Manyema, the lead author of the study, published on Tuesday by the Public Library of Science.
Obesity rates have soared around the world in the past 30 years and SA is no exception: the proportion of women overweight or obese in SA increased from 58.7% in 1980 to 69.3% last year, while for men the figure increased from 36.1% to 38.8%.
Obesity has a grave effect on health as it increases the risk of diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease and strokes.
Consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages has increased worldwide along similar lines to the obesity epidemic.
South Africans consume 12-24 teaspoons of sugar a day, about a third of which come from sugar-sweetened beverages. One such drink typically contains eight teaspoons of sugar.
The study assumed a 20% tax on sugar-sweetened drinks would be passed on to consumers and reduce demand. The average daily energy intake per person would fall by 36 kilojoules, which would translate into 222,669 fewer obese adults.
“The cost of obesity and the complications caused by obesity-related diseases have a very serious financial impact on the family, caregivers and breadwinners,” study co-author Karen Hofman said.
A sugar tax would not necessarily harm the economy, she said, as beverage companies could promote alternative products such as bottled water.
The Beverage Association of SA said a “discriminatory” tax was not an “effective measure because evidence shows consumers switch to different alternatives of the same or similar foods instead”.