Obesity is on the rise and many countries are making concrete moves to stop it’s rise. South Africa is the latest entrant into the battle against sugar as they have the esteemed but arguably unenviable position of being the first African country to plan a tax on drinks loaded with sugar. It will not be an easy plan to impose as quite a number of South Africans find their trips to the supermarket incomplete without stocking up on their most beloved fizzy or carbonated drinks.
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The arguments for it of course oscillates round the edges of ease of access, taste and affordability but the government on its side have two just as powerful arguments. Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan had introduced the tax on everything from carbonated soft drinks to flavored water in his February budget speech, so while the tax is mainly a way of tackling the issue of obesity and increased intake of sugar, it is also a way of controlling the country’s bulging budget deficit.
South Africa which has not been able to avoid the worldwide rise in obesity levels is estimated according to a 2014 World Health organization (WHO) estimate to have one in four South Africans being obese. The average South African also consumes 17 teaspoons of sugar a day and a 2013 study by the Human Sciences Research Council in Johannesburg points to the excessive sugar as a possible culprit in the rise of obesity levels in the country. Again, although it is far from being the sole culprit, high sugar consumption has likewise been linked to type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular diseases all of which put a strain on the publicly-funded health system.
WHO recommends that no more than 10 teaspoons of sugar be taken everyday, so the ‘sin tax’ seems to be a step in the right direction. There is however some agitations as other healthful food choices are simply not as affordable. The beverage companies have also raised concerns about the new sugar tax, the Beverage Association of South Africa (BevSA) have specially questioned why the government is targeting just drinks rather than the entire processed food industry.
There is also the fact that the sugar business employs a lot of people in South Africa, the South African Sugar Association actually says that one million people depend on the sugar industry for a living and it directly employs 79,000 people in the country. The singular question remains though if all this collective arguments can stand up to the obvious need to tackle some of the country’s health problems and no matter what your answer to that may be, the government has some decidedly tricky waters to navigate before the bill takes effect in April 2017. They must ensure somehow that the tax is low enough to not affect jobs and yet high enough to still ensure the aim of discouraging sugar intake.