At present, several governments have to combat the rising prevalence of obesity with levies on sugar and restrictions on the marketing of products with a high sugar content. Asian consumers, especially, with a sweet tooth are having to swallow the bitter pill of higher taxes.
Vietnam is considering a sugar tax, while Malaysia became the latest Asian country to enforce one on July 1, with a 40 sen (9 cents) levy on each liter of drinks with more than 5 grams of sugar or sugar-based sweetener. India, Thailand, Brunei and the Philippines have already imposed sugar taxes, while on Oct 10, Singapore banned ads for drinks with a high sugar content, the first country to implement such a policy.
According to the Asian Development Bank Institute, or ADBI, Asia-Pacific countries have high incidences of people being overweight or obese, with two out of every five adults, or 1 billion people overall, falling into these two categories.
Ma Guangsheng, the report’s author who heads the Department of Nutrition and Food Hygiene at Peking University, said the changing food environment continues to expose Chinese children to processed food and drinks containing sugar.
Christiane Rudert, UNICEF’s regional nutrition adviser, said the East Asia and Pacific regions have registered the fastest growth rate in the number of obese children. These regions cover Southeast Asia, North Asia and the Pacific island countries. The number of those age 5 to 19 who are overweight doubled from 2000 to last year, Rudert said. Some 80 million people in the region are overweight, more than half of them living in China. There are also a large number of overweight children in Indonesia and the Philippines.
China and India have the highest number of people with diabetes, with about 180 million having Type 2. Increased wealth in Asia has also led to urbanization and busy lifestyles. Most people now work in offices, take no or little physical exercise, do not cook, and have opted for the convenience of processed meals or eating in fast-food outlets.
Yik Ying Teo, dean of the Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health at the National University of Singapore, said rising consumption in Asia of food and drinks high in sugar is a “reflection of rapidly modernized societies”. As demand rises in Asia for sweet foods and drinks, so does the danger it poses – not only to people’s health but also to public finances and economic growth. The institute said chronic illnesses affect poor people the most, as they have to allocate as much as 25 percent of their household income to pay for treatment.
But a sugar tax, while effective, is not the “silver bullet” that can solve the region’s obesity problem. The important to create an improved environment for children – such as offering healthy meals in schools, banning the sale of junk food near school premises and mandatory front-of-pack nutrition labeling.
University of Hong Kong, said, “Obesity is the result of a complex combination of factors, including lifestyle and diet.” He proposed “a creative mix of policies”, where, for instance, a sugar tax can be complemented by health education programs. Asian policymakers have recognized this and have implemented programs that go beyond taxation.
Therefore, the high cost of treating chronic illnesses is the reason it makes sense to implement a sugar tax. According to World Health Organization (WHO), said such a levy is an “effective intervention”, noting that increased prices will reduce the consumption of sugary drinks.