SA’s Dept of Health ponders a sugar tax
SA’s Department of Health is giving consideration to a “sugar tax” to encourage South Africans to consume less of the sweet stuff, according to head of non-communicable diseases, Prof Melvyn Freeman.
His comments follow the publication of the World Health Organisation’s latest Global Cancer Report on Monday, which found that tobacco, booze and sweet drinks are driving a rapid growth in preventable cancers.
Its authors said while it was important for governments to encourage people to take responsibility for their own health and make changes to their diet and lifestyle, regulators should consider controlling alcohol and sugar consumption in the same way as tobacco products.
South Africa already has strong antitobacco legislation and recently introduced measures to limit the amount of salt in processed food.
It is also considering a ban on alcohol advertising, and recently commissioned research into the economic effects of such a ban.
“We don’t have any decision on a sugar tax. It is, however, an option that is being considered and we are assessing the evidence around this,” said Prof Freeman.
The Global Cancer Report 2014 said the global cancer burden rose to 14-million new cases a year in 2012, a figure which is set to rise to 22-million by 2022.
“Despite exciting advances, this report shows that we cannot treat our way out of the cancer problem,” said report co-editor Christopher Wild, who is a director at the International Agency for Research on Cancer. “More commitment to prevention and early detection is desperately needed.”
The report noted that there were many causes of cancer, including viruses, pesticides and radiation exposure. It pointed out that excess body fat increased the risk of cancer of the oesophagus, colon, pancreas, endometrium, kidney and breast cancer in post-menopausal women. “Among the dietary factors related to excess body weight, reduction of consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages should be a high priority.”
The University of the Witwatersrand School of Public Health’s Karen Hofman said it was not clear if a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages would be feasible, but even if it were, it should not be seen as a silver bullet.
“Any regulatory effort will only ever be part of the solution. People should be free to eat and drink what they like, but they need to have a full understanding of what they are consuming ,” Prof Hofman said. “Clear evidence existed that sugar played a role in obesity, which raised the risk of diabetes, hypertension and some cancers.”
However, Discovery’s Vitality Institute head, Derek Yach, cautioned against placing too much emphasis on the link between sugar consumption and preventable cancers.
“A focus on taxes on sugar to reduce cancer is a misplaced policy which will have little impact on cancer incidence and distract people from the major diet issues — reduce overall weight and increase healthy (food),” Dr Yach said.
Tobacco should remain the focus of cancer prevention efforts, he said. “Tobacco remains by far the most powerful single determinant of cancer, accounting for 90% of the lung cancer cases and about a third of all cancer deaths.”
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