Sugar Tax: Friend or foe for South Africa?

Khadija Patel, Mail & Guardian editor-in-chief (right), moderated the debate, which included (from left) Dr Sundeep Ruder, Dr Craig Nossel and keynote speaker Ismail Momonait. Photo: Elvis Ntombela

Khadija Patel, Mail & Guardian editor-in-chief (right), moderated the debate, which included (from left) Dr Sundeep Ruder, Dr Craig Nossel and keynote speaker Ismail Momonait. Photo: Elvis Ntombela

The health problems associated with the use — or abuse — of products containing sugar are well documented, as are those of smoking and alcohol abuse.

The Mail & Guardian hosted a frank debate on the merits versus the drawbacks of the sugar tax on 9 March, 2017 at the Gordon Institute for Business Science in Sandton, with expert panelists drawn from across the various affected sectors.

General consensus was that the tax was a positive step in the right direction for health — as long as it the tax income would also be used on education on the benefits of limiting sugar intake.

Moderator and Mail & Guardian editor-in-chief Khadija Patel remarked on how pleased she was to see representation at the event by government and the department of health, before handing over to keynote speaker Ismail Momonait, head of the tax and financial sector policy division at the national treasury, who emphasised that the anticipated R1-billion in annual tax revenue was not the objective of this tax — there are far easier ways to source revenue, he claims.

“The government policy on a tax on sugary beverages is driven by the health policy,” explained Momonait. “Obesity is a global epidemic and a major risk factor for the growing burden of non-communicable diseases. In South Africa, obesity has grown over the last 30 years and this country is considered the most obese in sub-Saharan Africa, with over half of its adults overweight and obese.

“Consumers still have their democratic right to have more sugar, but very few people will go so far as to put eight or 13 spoons of sugar in their tea. Some people are shocked at the amount of sugar in sodas and at least if people know what they are eating or drinking, they will be aware [of the consequences].”

Momonait also cautioned against highlighting the negatives through protests and incitement of resistance to the tax through false arguments.

Tshepo Marumele, general manager, Corporate Services BevSA (centre) speaks in opposition to the sugar tax, flanked by Dr Evan Blecher (left) and Sibusiso Sepeng (right). Photo: Elvis Ntombela

This was in response to some of the comments raised by two of the panelists, Tshepo Marumele, general manager, Corporate Services BevSA and Sibusiso Sepeng, group chief executive at Carotex, who raised their concerns about job losses and the impact on consumer income.

“No one has spoken conclusively about the the impact of sugar in certain beverages versus sugars in other sources,” said Marumele. “The tax is inadequate and not completely effective in changing behaviour.”

“I do believe that this tax is going to impact on business, but my argument is that it is also going to affect households,” said Sepeng. “Despite the alcohol tax, alcohol consumption has actually risen. “We accept the health consequences of excess sugar, but why hamper people further and hamper my economic growth?”

Changing behaviour

“Where is the study that demonstrates the benefits of soda products, which have no nutritional value?” stressed Dr Sundeep Ruder, clinical endocrinologist with the Fourways Life Hospital.

“These products have infiltrated communities and we are starting to see chronic [health] fallout. It is about sense gratification and trying to protect a product that is essentially bad for us. Evidence of this already exists.”

“We have to fight instrinsic desires,” continued Ruder. “Ultimately we are talking about obesity, which leads to a higher risk of cancer, diabetes, heart attack and strokes. Let us think about crucial behaviour change. We need a mass prescription that will change pathophysiology. Sick people don’t work well.

“There is the very important African philosophy – Ubuntu. I am because you are and that is how we work together. We need businesses that serve a need and not serve the greed. Policy needs to change into behavioural change and education and knowledge must come into that gap.”

Key quotes from the forum

  • “I have seen statistics related to lifestyle and this [tax] is one of the key inputs.  I hope this does not start and end with the tax, but also moves towards how products are purchased, positioned and marketed and particularly among the kids. This is an exciting but massive challenge that we have.” Dr Craig Nossel, head of Vitality Wellness, Discovery Health.
  • “If this [tax] is a revenue grab, this is the single worst revenue grab in the last 3 000 years. The amount of effort that has gone into this over the years is staggering — to only end up with R1-billion. Effort into changing serving sizes is also needed, as it has been seen to be effective.” Dr Evan Blecher, senior economist, Health Policy Centre: Institute for Health Research and Policy, University of Illinois.