Sugar tax may not be best weapon in war on diabetes

I disagree with proposals to introduce a sugar tax in Singapore ("War on diabetes: Sugar tax a sweet idea"; yesterday).

In populations across the globe, there is still no conclusive evidence linking sugar taxes with reductions in obesity or diabetes rates.

The lack of evidence may, in part, be due to the fact that sugar taxes have emerged only in recent years.

Until conclusive evidence is available elsewhere, Singapore should adopt a "wait and see" attitude about introducing a sugar tax.

The hypothesis that imposing sugar taxes will lead to the population switching to healthier food remains conjecture.

First, the price of healthier food is not likely to decrease with sugar taxes; instead, such a tax might trigger local food manufacturers and distributors to raise the prices of healthier food, thereby maintaining the cost premium of healthier food over less healthy food.

In Denmark, for instance, a tax on food high in saturated fat was introduced in October 2011. A year later, the "fat tax" was abolished and plans for a sugar tax were dropped because the former had unintentionally raised the price of everyday food items and failed to change eating habits.

Consequently, if a sugar tax is introduced in Singapore, it seems more likely that consumers would end up consuming the same food as they did before taxes were imposed (but pay more for it), or switch to lower-price but unhealthier alternatives.

According to the Singapore Department of Statistics, the average nominal price of basics (such as rice, fresh meat and vegetables) has soared, while the price of highly processed "junk food" hasn't changed much.

It is also a general observation that economically underprivileged families tend to consume more "junk food", not out of choice, but out of financial necessity.

My concern is that raising the price of "junk food" could lead to greater hardship for the poor, and perhaps even economic starvation.

And when the poor are unable to put food on their tables, social unrest and an increase in crime are likely to ensue.

Overall, the "war on diabetes" seems best waged through public education, and unless public education on diabetes has proven to be a complete failure, Singapore should not take the drastic and rather unproven measure of introducing sugar taxes.

Rather, there is always scope for improving public awareness on the detriment of diabetes.

Chan Yeow Chuan

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 06, 2016, with the headline 'Sugar tax may not be best weapon in war on diabetes'. Print Edition | Subscribe