SINGAPORE - From end-2021, pre-packaged non-alcoholic drinks with a high sugar or saturated fat content will be required to display a nutrition label with grades ranging from A to D, with D being the unhealthiest.
Retailers will also be banned from advertising D-grade drinks on all media platforms.
The same measures will next be applied to freshly prepared drinks, such as those from bubble tea chains, traditional medicine halls and smoothie chains.
These moves, announced on Thursday (March 5) by Senior Minister of State for Health Edwin Tong in Parliament, in addition to a growing presence of water dispensers to coax people to drink plain water, are part of Singapore's war on diabetes.
Speaking earlier at the session, Health Minister Gan Kim Yong said: "To win the war on diabetes, we will need concerted, multi-year efforts, and many of these will only bear fruit in the long term."
Singaporeans spend about 10 years of their life in ill health, he pointed out, and the battle against diabetes is part of efforts to reduce the burden of chronic disease here. About 19,000 people here are diagnosed with diabetes here each year.
Mr Tong, speaking during the debate on his ministry's budget, elaborated on the rules on labelling and advertising restrictions.
Known as "Nutri-Grade", the nutrient summary label will have four colour-coded grades ranging from green to red, with letters reflecting the sugar and saturated fat content of the drinks.
The sugar content will also be displayed on the label.
Drinks with A, the healthiest grade, must have 1g or less of sugar and 0.7g or less of saturated fat per 100ml, and contain no sweetener. These include water, skimmed milk and unsweetened teas.
Drinks with D, the unhealthiest grade, have more than 10g of sugar or 2.8g of saturated fat per 100ml. These include juice drinks, soft drinks and energy drinks.
The saturated fat content can "downgrade" the rating of a drink but not "upgrade" it.
For instance, a drink with less than 1g of sugar but more than 2.8g of saturated fat would be rated D despite its low sugar content, but a drink with more than 10g of sugar and less than 0.7g of saturated fat would also receive a D rating despite its low fat content.
The label is mandatory for drinks with a C or D grade. About 70 per cent of pre-packaged drinks in Singapore fall into this category.
Retailers may advertise grade D drinks at points of sale, such as inside their stores, but nowhere else.
Mr Tong said: "We want to encourage manufacturers to reformulate. The point is not to deprive Singaporeans of their favourite drinks, but to encourage manufacturers on their journey to reformulation to create a wider range of healthier beverages for all to enjoy."
The labels and advertising restrictions were first announced by Mr Tong in October 2019, without an implementation date. Neither did it encompass freshly prepared drinks.
But such drinks have become "a substantial and growing source of sugar intake for many Singaporeans", he noted.
Small businesses with one or two stalls, like those in hawker centres, will not be affected by the regulations initially, but this may change as the situation develops, he said.
The Health Ministry and Health Promotion Board will continue to engage the industry in the coming months to better understand the issue, and determine how best to implement the measures, he added.
To give consumers a healthier alternative, the Government has been increasing the number of water dispensers across the island.
By mid-2020, water dispensers will be available at all hawker centres here, as well as more than a dozen bus interchanges and terminals.
Assistant professor Verena Tan, an expert in dietetics and nutrition at the Singapore Institute of Technology, noted that the average person in Singapore consumes at least twice the daily amount of sugar recommended by the World Health Organisation.
She told The Straits Times: "A ban on advertising of sweetened pre-packaged beverages will lower the influence of advertising by reducing exposure especially among the vulnerable groups like young children."
Excessive sugar intake can cause dental problems, impact blood glucose levels, and is associated with diabetes and cholesterol issues.
She also said a diet rich in saturated fats can drive up a person's total cholesterol and increase the risk of heart disease.
A health communication expert, Professor May O. Lwin, of the Nanyang Technological University's Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information, said research on advertising restriction "shows the effects could be rapid, reducing consumer demand".
But, she added, research has shown that over time, marketers often turn to other communication avenues to reach consumers.
Professor Teo Yik Ying, dean of the Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health at the National University of Singapore, said of the new grading system: "It will clearly send an indication to the industry that there's a need to reformulate so that their drinks don't fall into the unhealthy bands of C and D.
"But equally, there'll be a signalling to the public, to remind them which products are healthier and less healthy."
The grading system, however, is not the final instrument, he added.
"If after a couple of years of evaluation the situation doesn't improve, there may be a need to implement a sugar tax, which is something governments (elsewhere) have done."
The authorities have said that a sugar tax, which would affect drinks with higher-sugar content, is not off the table.