Sodium also needs taxing
Starting tomorrow, the third stage of a tax hike on sugar-sweetened beverages (SSB) will come into effect, meaning consumers with a sweet tooth will have to pay more for soft drinks with a high sugar content.
Beverages with a sugar content of between 6 and 8 grammes per 100ml will be taxed 30 satang per litre, 8 and 10g per 100ml will be taxed 1 baht per litre, 10 and 14 will be taxed 3 baht per litre and 14 and 18 will be taxed 5 baht per litre. Only beverages with a sugar content of less than 6g will be exempted from the tax.
The trailblazing SSB tax, or "sweet tax", is part of the finance ministry's plan to shift consumer and industry behaviour towards a healthier way, and the public and market response has been rather sweet.
First collected in 2017, the SSB tax gives plenty of time to the food business and consumers to adjust. Tax rates are updated every two years, but the government postponed the hike amid the Covid-19 pandemic to avoid causing a financial burden on consumers.
The tax forces businesses to adjust old products and develop new ones. The market for low-sugar beverages and healthy drinks is up 900%, from 200 items before the SSB tax to 1,800, according to data from the Excise Department's principal adviser on excise control system development.
Academic research conducted by the Institute for Population and Social Research at Mahidol University in 2020 shows that a sample group of people over six years old consumed 2.8% less high-sugar beverages when compared to the year before, while consumption among those over 60 dropped to 7.2%.
Despite this encouraging outcome, critics argue that the existing SSB tariff is insufficient because there are many untaxed sweet foods and beverages, including freshly made milk teas, pastries and desserts.
Thais still have a sweet tooth. The average Thai reportedly consumes 20 teaspoons of sugar per day, as opposed to the recommended six teaspoons per day average recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO). According to the Public Health Ministry, 5 million Thais suffer from serious, incurable diabetes.
The dietary problem is not only from sweet food. Sodium also presents a big health problem, yet it does not receive much attention from consumers. The average Thai consumes 4,300mg of sodium per day, twice the level recommended by the WHO.
Consuming too much sodium leads to high blood pressure and kidney disease. Each year, the government has to spend 36 billion baht in the health budget for medical treatments, including kidney dialysis, for 100,000 patients.
It is time that the Excise Department imposed a tax on sodium levels in some processed food products, such as instant noodles, snacks and frozen food. Indeed, the department has already completed a study and drafted regulations for a sodium tax this year. With the rise of kidney disease, there is no reason for the Finance Ministry to delay moving forward.
The government needs to bear in mind that imposing taxes alone is not enough. Policymakers need to use comprehensive action plans, such as restricting the marketing of food products that promote unhealthy eating among children and providing education to consumers and the food sector about healthy eating.
It is not enough to ban or use taxes to restrict people's behaviour. The government must work harder to provide affordable healthy alternatives, such as organic fruit, cheap or even free fresh water supplies, and clean food for consumers.
Bangkok Post editorial column
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