Taxing sugar out of our diet
Most people hate taxes but reluctantly concede they are a necessary evil, especially “lifestyle taxes” better known as “sin taxes”, which are usually applied to activities such as drinking, littering, smoking and the like.
In his 2015 Budget presentation, Minister of Finance Chris Sinckler announced a ten per cent “sin tax” on sweet drinks, including carbonated beverages, juice drinks, sports drinks and fruit juices which contain high caloric sweeteners in a bid to force Barbadians to ditch their cravings for sugar.
While some readily endorsed the move, the majority scoffed at the idea, saying it would not achieve its stated objective.
Critics contended instead that the move had more to do with Government’s own insatiable appetite for taking more and more from the pockets of vulnerable Barbadian taxpayers.
Well as fate would have it, Minister of Health John Boyce reported last week that there was no evidence to show any real drop in the consumption of sugary drinks, giving credence to the position of the sweet drinks tax sceptics.
“We are assessing the success of that programme, but even from here we can see that it has not necessarily had the impact that we would have hoped and that there is still that wanton consumption of sugary beverages,” Boyce admitted.
This was met by an almost immediate response from respected medical practitioner Sir Henry Fraser, who suggested earlier this week that the tax was bound to fail but not for any political reasons. His argument was that ten per cent was too small a charge to stop anyone with a major sugar crave.
“It [sweet drinks tax] must be significant to make a difference,” said Sir Henry.
He went on to argue for an increase in the current levy to 30 per cent, while suggesting that as with alcohol and cigarettes, taxes on sweet drinks must be significant if they are to act a deterrent to users.
His position is supported by an October statement issued by the World Health Organization (WHO) in which it not only called for countries to use tax policy to increase the price of sugary drinks, but also recommended a tax level that would yield high results.
“Tax policies that lead to a 20 per cent increase in the retail prices of sugary drinks would result in a proportional reduction in consumption,” the WHO said.
Still there is an even stronger reason why we believe that Sir Henry’s advice should be considered:
It is that this small island has some of the highest rates in the world for obesity, diabetes and other chronic diseases.
As Sir Henry pointed out, two thirds of our women are overweight or obese and one third of our men overweight or obese.
As a consequence, an estimated 20 per cent of all adults — half of those over 45 — have high blood pressure.
And if the later figure is not starting enough, local health officials say by age 60, it’s 60 per cent.
Currently, one in five adults here who are over 45 years of age have diabetes and are heading for strokes, heart attacks and kidney failure.
To put it simply, we have a spiralling health crisis on our hands that demands a tough response.
And to extent that a price hike on sweet drinks could discourage consumption, if only marginally at this stage, we believe that a review is definitely in order.
Admittedly people react differently to price increases. Therefore, some may opt to cut purchases, while others might abandon sugary drinks or buy more chocolate and other high–caloric foods instead.
Critics may also argue that taxes on sugary foods affect the most vulnerable in the society and that it wrong to limit a person’s right to choose what they want to consume by way of punitive taxes.
However, that we believe that is not a good enough basis, especially when our children are most vulnerable and given the strain that is already being placed on the national health system for reasons that are totally avoidable.
With that said, we are equally eager to see incentives offered by Government for Bajans to practise a more healthy way of living.
At the individual level we all need to get serious about own health, starting with small changes, like purchasing more local fruits and vegetables, drinking more water and increasing our physical activity by taking a simple walk, or sea bath.
Our hope is that ultimately there will be no need for any sin tax at all.