Singapore to ban ads of packaged drinks with very high sugar

Medium-to-high sugar drinks will also carry label as war against diabetes is ramped up

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Singapore will become the first country in the world to ban advertisements of packaged drinks with very high sugar content, in its latest salvo in the war on diabetes.

It will also be mandatory for drinks with medium-to-high sugar content to carry a label on the front of the pack to signal they are unhealthy.

Drinks affected include those in bottles, cans and packs. Soft drinks, juices, sachets of three-in-one drinks, and cultured milk and yogurt drinks are covered.

When this comes into play and what exactly will be affected will be announced next year, with more time given to manufacturers before the measures are implemented.

Announcing this yesterday, Senior Minister of State for Health Edwin Tong said these changes are designed to encourage people to make more informed choices and to get manufacturers to reduce the sugar content in packaged sugar-sweetened beverages, or SSBs.

The front-of-pack label will be colour-coded and show a grade to indicate if the drink is healthy, neutral or unhealthy. More than 30 countries have introduced such labels, with great success. In Chile, the sales of drinks with the unhealthy labels fell by 25 per cent after 11/2 years.

How a drink is graded depends largely, but not solely, on the amount of sugar it contains.

Other factors include the amount of saturated fat such as that found in three-in-one coffee mixes.

The label will be compulsory only for drinks classified as unhealthy. But the label may also be used to promote healthier drinks.

Speaking at the three-day Singapore Health & Biomedical Congress at Max Atria @ Singapore Expo, Mr Tong said manufacturers of healthier drinks are encouraged to use the label to help consumers decide.

He added: "Under the new nutrient summary label, healthier SSBs can receive a positive grade, and we leave it as an option for the manufacturers whether or not they want their products to bear the label."

The move is part of the war on diabetes, which is a major health problem in Singapore. A survey last year found that more than half the 12 spoons of sugar people consume here daily comes from such drinks.

Mr Tong said: "This is a concern as drinking an additional 250ml of SSBs every day increases the risk of diabetes by up to 26 per cent."

In spite of exhortations to reduce sugar content, makers of medium-to-high sugar content drinks have not reduced the average of five teaspoons per 250ml in the past decade. Some sugar-sweetened beverages have as much as eight teaspoons of sugar per 250ml. High-sugar drinks are popular, accounting for half of all sugar-sweetened beverages sold here.

Last December, the Ministry of Health (MOH) and the Health Promotion Board started eight weeks of public consultation on how to reduce sugar intake here.

It had proposed four measures: Mandatory front-of-pack label, regulation on advertising, a sugar tax and a ban on high-sugar prepackaged beverages.

The use of a compulsory label received the highest support, with 84 per cent of the more than 4,000 respondents in favour of it.

Less than half favoured a ban on such drinks, saying that "it was too extreme and deprived consumers of their ability to choose".

Although only two of the proposed actions are being implemented, the other options are still on the table. Mr Tong said: "We will need more time to study these, and will continue to explore an excise duty or a ban on higher-sugar SSBs."

He told the media that MOH is also looking at how sugar in freshly prepared drinks, such as bubble tea and drinks at fast-food outlets, can be regulated. There is concern that consumers might simply replace sugar-sweetened beverages with freshly prepared high-sugar drinks.

During the consultations, the drinks industry was strongly against a tax or ban, claiming that the two moves would not reduce sugar consumption.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 11, 2019, with the headline Singapore to ban ads of packaged drinks with very high sugar. Subscribe