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Treasury goes with health pundits on sugar tax

Sugar tax threatens jobs say suppliers

With the publication by Treasury of the policy paper on a sugar tax on sugar-sweetened beverages of 2.9 cents percanning gram of sugar, Treasury is set to raise some R3bn from fizzy or carbonated drinks and the possibly of a total R4.5bn from the food and beverage industry as a whole. Others in political circles estimate that revenue could exceed R11bn.

Minister of Finance, Pravin Gordhan, promised that such a tax would be forthcoming in last year’s budget speech. As this figure quoted by the Minister is minuscule in terms of the total country’s overall budget needs and the administration may outweigh the costs of actually collecting it the Minister has pointed out in mitigation that there are easier ways to garner tax revenue.

With that disclaimer, the release from Treasury also says the tax “flows from work undertaken by the health department on non-communicable diseases and obesity.”   They said, “The problem of obesity has grown over the past 30 years in South Africa resulting in the country being ranked the worst in sub-Saharan Africa”.

In the background

sars logoWhat Minister Gordhan says is usually the truth but most of the influence is more likely to be coming from the Ministry of Health.     At the most, Minister Gordhan says that the idea in Treasury is to “nudge consumers into better choices to fight obesity.”  Whether this move will in fact contribute to a cut in obesity deaths remains in the strange area of whether an increase in the price of whisky reduces the number of whisky drinkers.

Treasury is following the theory that by making the cost of cool drinks higher and thus less affordable, it will make sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs) less appealing to consumers, a theory also which appeals to the Minister of Health whoaaron motsolaedi has been most vocal on the subject.    Such an idea also conforms to sugar-related food and beverages studies conducted by Wits University, they both say.

Not medically holistic?

Most objectors to the idea of a “sin” tax on SSBs say that if one wishes to really succeed in a fight against high obesity rates in SA, then only a whole package of measures will achieve the desired result.    In the UK apparently, where the argument also raged, it was stated that a sugar tax was an impractical answer without a tax on crisps and snacks, a whole range of harmful foodstuffs and, especially with children, other “goodies” sold to them from tuck shops and cafés.

In SA, many have said that to isolate SSBs, when they are sometimes more available than potable water in a number of rural areas, is counter-productive. There will be more “unintended consequences”, they say.

Who suffers most

From a political viewpoint, the Democratic Alliance (DA) and the Beverage Association of SA both echo the same sentiment that all the tax will do is “hurt the poor and will most likely fail in its objective to reduce obesity”. The debate will obviously become quite intense in this area alone.

The DA has already gone on record as saying “It is difficult to compel consumers to eat healthier foods by making unhealthy foods expensive. There are always cheaper, fizzier and sweeter alternatives on offer.” This does of course make that point that SSBs, in their view, are unhealthy.    The DA added it would reject Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan’s proposed sugar tax if its purpose was “simply to raise more revenue under the fig leaf of a public health benefit”.

The proposed date for the enforcement of such a sugar tax is April 1, 2017, and bottlers such as Coca Cola state thatcoke bottle sugar is in most food and drink and they ask how far this form of tax will go.  Already government has announced regulations restricting the amount of salt in most foods, including bread and processed foods, in an effort to reduce the cost to the State in respect of heart attacks.

Health objectives

Dr Aaron Motsoaledi has set out the intentions of the Department of Health (DOH) to reduce obesity by ten percent in South Africa by 2020.

The DA have argued that by that date any sugar tax would have contributed as a major item in driving drive up food prices, whereas the answer they say lies in a “holistic healthy lifestyle campaign”. They have also said that they  would object to Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan’s proposed sugar tax if its purpose was “simply to raise more sweet counterrevenue under the fig leaf of a public health benefit” but its difficult to see how they could stop the tax as most Bills on tax are incorporated in ‘money’ Bills.

The DOH paper on obesity points to a US report that “sugary” drinks may lead to an estimated 184,000 adult deaths each year globally and that South Africa was ranked second in the world. That seems a rather unsupported figure but is an example of the rather extraordinary claims being thrown around.

World view

Most bottlers seem to have unsweetened versions on the market it is noted, so technically the matter remains a consumer choice but marketing people say people don’t like switching.   Confirmed by Treasury is the fact that other countries such as Denmark, Finland, France, Hungary, Ireland, Mexico and Norway have all levied taxes on SSBs.

The DA point out that Mexico is the only case comparable with South Africa with such a large sector of poor and there the tax has failed to reduce obesity. Treasury disagrees and says “a tax on foods high in sugar is potentially a very cost effective strategy to address diet related diseases”.

Written comment on the proposals is invited until 22 August 2016.
Previous articles on category subject
Sugar tax possibilities – ParlyReportSA
SA health welfare starts in small way – ParlyReportSA

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