Twenty-six representatives of the public health community of South Africa have written a letter to the National Treasury, endorsing the implementation of the sugar-sweetened beverages tax set for April next year.
The representatives, who include leading health individuals and civil-society organisations, said the tax was an important first step in cost-effective intervention in both the national Department of Health’s strategic plan for non-communicable diseases, and their national strategic plan for obesity. This as the Treasury met with the beverage industry yesterday regarding the imminent tax.
“The implementation of the tax will need to be followed by a series of other measures to address the staggering obesity epidemic in this country, which now rivals HIV and TB.
“This must include a population-wide health promotion campaign so the public appreciates this tax as an enabling process to support individual and population level health,” the letter stated.
The letter follows research done by a programme to enable smart decisions about health investments in South Africa.
The programme, called Priority Cost Effective Lessons for Systems Strengthening South Africa (Priceless SA), showed that a 20-percent tax on sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs) could reduce the number of obese people by almost a quarter of a million over the next three to five years.
Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan announced the tax during his 2016 Budget speech, with its implementation due in April next year.
Using a mathematical simulation model made to estimate the effect of a 20-percent SSB tax on the prevalence of obesity, the research team used consumption data from the 2012/13 SA National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey and found that by instituting the tax, there would be a reduction in energy intake by 36 kilojoules a day. This resulted in a 3.8 percent reduction in obesity in men and a 2.4 percent reduction in women.
This, according to the research, would translate to a decrease of more than 220 000 obese adults in the country.
“Drinking one to two SSBs a day increases an adult’s likelihood of being overweight by 27 percent and by 55 percent in children. It also increases the risk of developing type II diabetes,” Professor Karen Hofman, one of the authors of the research, said on Wednesday.
At the Wits School of Public Health, Hofman detailed local and international research on the impact of an SSB tax on obesity, citing how Mexico had passed legislation on the tax in 2014 and had, in one year after that, seen a 12 percent decline in SSB purchases and an increase of 4 percent in bottled water purchases.
In South Africa, 39 percent of women and 11 percent of men are obese or overweight, and the country is among the top 10 global consumers of sugary drinks.
“Every year we wait, more people will become obese. Soft drink sales are already projected to grow by 2.4 percent a year from 2015 to 2017.
“The cost of inaction could result in an increase of 16 percent of obese people, 20 percent of which will be due to SSBs. That is a 280 000 increase in obese people,” Hofman stated.
She added: “It’s important for us to make sure people know what’s going on. We believe honesty is the best policy and know most people are unaware of what they’re eating or drinking.
“In the case of a 500ml SSB, there are probably 12-14 teaspoons of sugar. In a 2-litre SSB there are 50 teaspoons of sugar.”
While she conceded the sugar industry in South Africa was “deeply entrenched” and that the SSB tax would not stop some, she said that for those who did stop consuming SSBs as a result of the tax, their health would benefit.
The Treasury had not responded to queries regarding the meeting at the time of publication.