Obesity among young South African children is also 35% higher than the global child obesity occurrence, says the writer. Picture: THINKSTOCK

RUMOURS of an imminent "sugar tax" (tax on high-sugar content foodstuffs) have for some time dogged the food and nonalcoholic beverage industries. Whether or not the rumours are true, the Department of Health’s concerns about obesity among South Africans appear to be justified. Various scientific publications have named SA "the third-fattest nation in the world".

Obesity among young South African children is also 35% higher than the global child obesity occurrence, which adds significantly to the country’s noncommunicable disease burden. It is ostensibly for this reason that the department pegged SA’s target for the 2020 Millennium Development Goals at a 10% reduction in obesity rates, while other nations eschewed specific targets.

Industry stakeholders met department officials in February 2014 to obtain clarity on the matter. It was agreed to shift the emphasis from "sugar taxation" to a more comprehensive focus on healthier food options. Various engagements followed where self-regulation, existing industry initiatives and challenges were deliberated.

Three focus areas were identified: revising the 2009 marketing to children code as a suggested replacement for the department’s very strict guideline; a consumer awareness campaign aimed at promoting healthy foodstuff options as part of a healthy lifestyle; and product reformulation to introduce more healthy options to the market.

With emphasis on children older than three, the department recommended that the industry consider ways to reduce the sugar and fat content of foodstuffs, make healthy food options more accessible and less costly, serve unhealthier choices in smaller portions (no more "super-sizing"), and market healthy foodstuffs in a generic, nonbranded manner. The message was clear: "Make healthy sexy."

It also became evident that a single tailored solution would not suffice, as the industries involved varied significantly. It was therefore agreed to rather follow a sector-based approach. Six sectors were identified: quick-service restaurants, snacks, treats and baked goods, grains and cereals, nonalcoholic beverages, wholesale and retail, and dairy products. Action plans from each of the sectors would contain specific goals and respective deadlines that would feed into one large industry strategy, to be presented to the department for approval.

Despite challenges that still have to be ironed out, this industry initiative is under way to ensure more accessible, affordable, healthier foodstuff choices to consumers.

The good news is that the visibility thereof should become apparent by June. This will include better choices offered by vending machines, healthier retail checkout aisles and toyless fast-food kids’ meals. Quick-service restaurants will also showcase the energy content of meals on display, while food labels will contain more detailed information on the nutritional content of products.

Should it transpire that a sugar tax was suddenly being considered again, the uncertainty would undermine many of these efforts, as well as the constructive leadership the department has displayed.

Narrowly focused taxes have very mixed results when it comes to changing behaviour and often act as a drag on economic growth.

Unintended consequences include job losses, illicit cross-border trade, bureaucratic challenges for producers and outlets, uncertainty in terms of law enforcement, lack of scientific credibility, stigmatisation of those who are overweight, and discrimination against consumers’ right of choice.

As with many of society’s ills, obesity requires a multifaceted approach, and in this the consumer also bears some responsibility. Reading labels and choosing reputable brands are simple ways in which consumers can be more vigilant, to the benefit of their own health.

• Van der Riet, a registered dietician, heads FTI Consulting Strategic Communication’s nutrition practice