How other countries are tackling high sugar consumption

Generally, the goal of having a sugar tax is to encourage manufacturers to reformulate their drinks so less sugar is used.
Generally, the goal of having a sugar tax is to encourage manufacturers to reformulate their drinks so less sugar is used.PHOTO: SYAMIL SAPARI FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

SINGAPORE - Many countries in the world tax pre-packed drinks that are high in sugar as a way to cut the sugar consumption by their people. These include neighbours in the region such as Brunei and Thailand.

One of the earliest to do so is Finland, which has taxed sugar-sweetened drinks since the 1940s.

The most recent is Britain, which imposed a two-tiered sugar tax in April this year. There is a 33 Singapore cents tax per litre for packaged drinks with more than 5 per cent sugar, and 44 Singapore cents when the sugar content exceeds 8 per cent.

The tax was announced in 2016, leading to more than half the drinks manufacturers reformulating their products to contain less sugar.

Thailand, which launched its tax last year, has four tiers of taxes. There is no tax for drinks which contain less than 6 per cent of sugar.

Generally, the goal of having a sugar tax is to encourage manufacturers to reformulate their drinks so less sugar is used.

A tax, even a low one such as the three-cent tax per litre of drinks with more than 8 per cent sugar in Hungary, can change people's drinking patterns.

Hungary imposed a health tax in 2011 on a range of unhealthy foods including drinks, ice cream, jams and condiments. Within two years, the sales of taxed food fell by 27 per cent.

Professor Eric Finkelstein of Duke-NUS Medical School said taxes that raise prices by 20 per cent tend to have a significant effect on purchases.

 
 
 

Professor Teo Yik Ying, dean of the Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health, said such taxes are aimed not at consumers but to incentivise the industry to reduce the sugar content to avoid the tax.

Other steps countries have taken to reduce sugar intake, and which Singapore is also considering, is to ban or restrict advertisements of unhealthy food and drinks and to get manufacturers to place prominent labels to indicate whether the food is healthy or not.

Some of these labels provide details on the amount of sugar, salt, fat and total calories in the product, while others use stars or traffic light symbols to indicate if the item is healthy, neutral or unhealthy.

Prof Finkelstein said most people ignore labels. But for people who do read them, these labels have a major impact on their purchases.

Prof Teo said the key to getting people to take less sugar is education. If people want healthier versions, manufacturers will provide them, he said.

"Fundamentally, they are driven by profits and consumer choices."

Professor Rob van Dam, an epidemiologist at the Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health, said restricting advertisements of high-sugar drinks is important as these tend to appeal to children who are "less able to distinguish between factual information and advertisements".