Government considers sugar tax for South Africa

28th March 2014

The Department of Health (DoH) is considering introducing a sugar tax to encourage South Africans to consume less sugar, says DoH noncommunicable diseases head Melvyn Freeman.

Freeman’s comment follows the publication of the World Health Organisation’s Global Cancer Report 2014, which reports that tobacco, alcohol and sweet drinks are driving a rapid growth in preventable cancers.

Analysts say, while it is important for governments to encourage people to take responsibility for their own health and make changes to their diet and lifestyle, regulators should consider controlling alcohol and sugar consumption in the same way as tobacco products.

South Africa already has strong anti-tobacco legislation and it has recently introduced measures to limit the amount of salt in processed food. It is also considering a ban on alcohol advertising, with research into the economic effects of such a ban, currently under way.

“There is no final decision on a sugar tax as yet, but it is an option that is being considered and we are assessing all relevant factors around this,” says Freeman.

The Global Cancer Report 2014 adds that the global cancer number rose to 14-million new cases a year in 2012, a figure, which is set to rise to 22-million by 2022.

“This report shows that we cannot treat our way out of the cancer problem,” says report co-editor Christopher Wild, who is also a director at the International Agency for Research on Cancer. He adds that deeper commitment to prevention and early detection is desperately needed.

The report says there were many causes of cancer, including viruses, pesticides and radiation exposure. It pointed out that excess body fat increased the risk of cancer of the oesophagus, colon, pancreas, endometrium, kidney, and breast cancer in post-menopausal women. “Among the dietary factors related to excess body weight, reduction of consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages (SSB) should be a high priority.”

Further, analysts say evi- dence exists showing that sugar plays a role in obesity, which raises the risk of diabetes, hypertension and some cancers.

University of the Witwatersrand School of Public Health director Karen Hofman said it was not clear if a tax on SSB would be feasible, but even if it were, it should not be seen as a silver bullet. “Any regulatory effort will only ever be part of the solution. People should be free to eat and drink what they like, but they need to have a full understanding of what they are consuming,” says Hofman.

She adds that she is unaware of a specific tax on sugar anywhere in the world. “We do know that taxes have been successfully intro- duced on SSB in several countries including France and Mexico,” says Hofman.

In countries such as these, the SSB have not been in place for long enough to know about the impact that they have. “However, initial research shows that taxes can lead to decreased consumption of SSB,” says Hofman.

However, medical company Discovery Vitality institute head Derek Yach has publically cautioned against placing too much emphasis on the link between sugar consumption and preventable cancers.

“A focus on taxes on sugar to reduce cancer is a misplaced policy, which will have little impact on cancer incidences and distract people from the major diet issues – reduce overall weight and increase healthy food intake,” says Yach.

Tobacco should remain the focus of cancer prevention efforts, he said. “Tobacco remains by far the most powerful single deter- minant of cancer, accounting for 90% of the lung cancer cases and about a third of all cancer deaths.”