Tuck shop owners should improve the quality of the food and drink choices, a Medical Research Council study says, to reduce risks of heart disease, strokes, diabetes and cancer. Picture: DAILY DISPATCH
Tuck shop owners should improve the quality of the food and drink choices, a Medical Research Council study says, to reduce risks of heart disease, strokes, diabetes and cancer. Picture: DAILY DISPATCH

THIS is not the first time that a country turns to a blunt instrument such as taxation to achieve putative public health goals. Taxes on sugar-sweetened beverages have been tried in Europe, South and North America. What have we learnt from those experiences?

If the purpose of the tax is simply to raise more general revenue under the fig leaf of a public health benefit, it lacks moral force, has no compelling national purpose, and should be rejected out of hand. Having another tax simply to finance a dysfunctional national government is indefensible.

But if the tax is clearly structured to fund medical health research on obesity, diabetes, hypertension, and the social habits of lifestyle that result clearly in increases in body mass index, its purpose would be more defensible.

The Treasury estimates that about R11bn could be added to the fiscus from which a meaningful portion should be ring-fenced for health research on the relationship between eating and drinking habits and obesity, diabetes, hypertension, and tooth decay.

A critical question is whether a sugar tax destroys jobs. SA’s unemployment rate is high and worsening, and any measure that cuts jobs must be strenuously resisted. Coca-Cola Beverages SA claims that 60,000 jobs will be lost because of a drop in demand resulting from a price hike. The figure may be the speculative over-statement of a self-interested party, but any job losses among working people in our no-growth environment must be resisted.

Equally concerning is what a price hike would do for smaller outlets and spaza shops. Sugar-sweetened drinks contribute a big percentage to the overall turnover of small businesses. The fear is that many of the street vendors and spaza shops may meet onerous consumer resistance.

A further test is whether the tax is structured to encourage product innovation or not. The scheme proposed by the UK’s former chancellor of the exchequer, George Osborne, is instructive: under their plan, Sprite, which contains 6.6g of sugar per 100ml, would be taxed at a lower rate, and Coca-Cola, with 10.6g per 100ml, would pay the upper rate.

The presumption is that, over time, a graduated tax on manufacturers would prompt the companies to innovate and expand their product range to include more drinks that fall under the sugar threshold that attract no additional taxes. Companies could be given a year’s grace to alter their product line-up before the tax is imposed.

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CONSIDERATION should be given to direct tax proceeds towards assisting schools to promote more exercise opportunities and expand the range of nutritious foods and healthy drinks in tenders and made available at tuck shops for those schools that have them.

The Medical Research Council’s Patricia Albers and Caradee Wright published research in the science magazine Quest on the role of school tuck shops in reducing future risks of heart disease, strokes, diabetes, respiratory disease, and cancer, and argued that improved diet and physical exercise are two ways in which schools could play a meaningful role.

They said tuck shop owners should improve the quality of the food and drink choices such as, for example, having: wholesome cooked food containing whole grains, fresh vegetables and limited processed products; and brown or whole-wheat bread sandwiches instead of white-bread ones.

The tuck shops should offer water instead of sweetened drinks, and fresh fruit, dried fruit, and unsalted nuts. They should place healthy products where they can be more easily seen, and start kitchen garden projects to help provide fresh food for children who may not be able to bring food from home.

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We would recommend establishing an advisory council on healthy lifestyles, like that of Malta, to advise the minister of health on matters related to health, physical activity, and nutrition on policies, action plans, and regulations intended to reduce obesity among the public.

It can also advise the minister of basic education on optimal periods for physical education as part of the established curriculum; and developing a comprehensive list of food items that may be sold and consumed on school premises.

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THE minister of co-operative government and traditional affairs can receive advice on the spending of a pre-defined percentage of its annual budget in such a way to promote sport and physical activity through the installation of open gyms in open spaces.

We should not treat the beverage industry as an enemy of change. Businesses are capable of extraordinary innovation if the incentive architecture is right.

The American Beverage Association agreed to voluntarily withdraw sugar-sweetened drinks from some school premises. Beverage companies can also help with nutrition education and responsible advertising and labelling of food products.

The role of the state in regulating individuals’ eating and drinking habits must be balanced with the responsibilities and educated exercise of choice by individuals. After all, no one is force-feeding us and, as independent, willful, moral actors in this world of ours, we must learn to discipline our eating and lifestyle habits.

James, MP, is DA health spokesman. This is an edited version of the DA’s submission to the Treasury on the proposed sugar tax.