The provision of free drinking water across Singapore and the possible introduction of a sugar tax - the proverbial carrot and stick applied to public policy - are tactical moves in the war on diabetes that began two years ago. The strategic direction is clear: Singapore must beat a scourge that afflicts about 400,000 people, a figure that could rise to one million by 2050 if nothing is done. Indeed, some measures are working. As they become more health conscious, Singaporeans are eating healthier meals, exercising and screening themselves for medical problems.
However, these improvements are still blunted by the ingrained force of habit. In an affluent society, sugary drinks have become the "natural" way to conclude an appetising meal. But packaged drinks that attract customers with their heavy sugar content are anything but natural. What they do, instead, is create an addictive habit that contributes to the risk of diabetes. Sugar is unlike drugs, which the state has placed outside the ambit of legal behaviour; or smoking, which is recognised as a health hazard; or alcohol, whose deleterious effects on body and mind are well known; or even salt, whose excessive intake is not considered normal any longer. Unlike them, sugar is still associated with sweetness in dietary culture. This could account for why parents allow children to consume sweetened drinks to an extent which they would not, of course, countenance with smoking and alcohol, and even salt.