SA Finance Minister lambasted for silence on sugar tax

ABBEY MAKOE

HEALTHY Living Alliance (HEALA), the Centre for Communication Impact (CCI), which is a health and social behaviour change and communication organisation have, together with their partners, lambasted finance minister Enoch Godongwana’s silence about their repeated calls to hike the so-called “sugar tax”.

Food Policy Project manager at the CCI, Selaelo Mabela, says: “We are determined to continuously raise awareness and consciousness about the food that we eat and the ingredients contained therein. We undertake this work as part of our endeavour to push back the frontiers of hunger and poverty across the length and breadth of our inequity-riddled country.”

HEALA’s chief Nzama Mbalati says the government’s failure to increase and expand the health promotion levy to include ultra-processed food in its Medium Term Budget Policy Statement (MTBPS) yesterday (Thursday) risks the lives of thousands of South Africans.

 “It also cost the country billions in revenue that could have supported the expansion of social protection such as basic income grant,” argues Mbalati.  

The healthy living NGO’s noted that yesterday’s MTBPS marked the third year in a row that “the government has failed to meaningfully increase the health promotion levy — despite mounting scientific evidence that proves the levy is reducing the amount of sugar among millions of South Africans”.

According to the NGO’s, doubling the levy to the World Health Organization (WHO)-recommended 20% “could have netted South Africa about R2 billion in the short term – the equivalent of almost six-million Covid-19 emergency grants. This projection is based on current consumption levels and the revenue raised by the levy already,” Mbalati claims, before adding: “The evidence is in. The health promotion levy is working to drastically reduce the amount of sugar South Africans consume and that puts them at risk of serious health problems and death. But every year that the Treasury stalls in increasing the levy, it gets weaker.” 

Mbalati says “South Africa requires a radical reconfiguration of its budget, not incremental tinkering, to protect people’s health. It’s time for the Treasury to follow the evidence and double the health promotion levy.” 

He says on average South Africans consumed “up to 24 teaspoons of sugar a day -or four times the WHO-recommended limit in 2016, according to the University of the Witwatersrand. Up to a third of this sugar was from sugary drinks,” says Mbalati.   

In 2018, South Africa introduced an 11% health promotion levy on sugary drinks to curb the country’s astronomical consumption, which is fueling an increase in diseases such as diabetes, high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease. Today, illnesses like these are some of the top causes of death in the country and among the leading risk factors for serious Covid-19, according to the National Institutes for Communicable Diseases. 

HEALA and its partners claim that a number of recently peer-reviewed studies have shown that the levy is working to reduce dangerous sugar consumption. A recent study published in The Lancet medical journal and conducted among about 3,000 households found that “the levy roughly halved the amount of sugar and calories people consumed when compared to projected trends if the levy had never happened at all”. Under this scenario, Mbalati explains, the volume of sugar drinks people bought fell by almost 30%. “These reductions were largest among poorer households, which also have worse access to healthcare,” he says. 

He argues that a levy of 20% could do even more. “Today, South Africa’s 11% health promotion levy is already about half of what government had initially proposed in 2016 due to industry pressure. “We are concerned that this industry pressure may have now led, in principle, to an agreement behind closed doors between the sugar industry and some government departments to ban hikes to the levy until at least 2023,” he says.

Other proposals from HEALA include the following: (1) Requiring/enabling healthy food environments in all public institutions in places such as schools and hospitals; (2) Ensuring implementation of the National School Nutrition Programme at all schools and (3) Strengthening and enforcing regulations on marketing products to children and mothers. 

“We urge the government and the National Treasury not to put profits before people and to urgently double the health promotion levy to the WHO-recommended level of 20% – a rate that is backed by local research,” Mbalati says. Meanwhile, HEALA and their partners “demand full transparency regarding what, if any, agreements are in place to prevent increases to the levy. South Africans’ health is not for sale, and it cannot wait,” says Mbalati.

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