Sugar tax just a quick fix

Sugar tax just a quick fix

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced two weeks ago the biggest overhaul of the country's food nutrition labels in more than two decades. One big change will be the addition of a line for "added sugar" below the line for total sugar.

The change on the label -- along with other measures including revised serving sizes and larger text for calorie counts -- is expected to be fully implemented in two years. The new "added sugar" line is designed to help consumers distinguish between natural sugar and sugar that manufacturers add to boost flavour. This is also to pressure food companies to make fewer unhealthy products.

The US First Lady Michelle Obama, who unveiled the updated nutrition labels as part of her campaign to encourage Americans to eat healthier, said at the recent launch event that with this new label, consumers "will no longer need a microscope, a calculator or a degree in nutrition to figure out whether the food you're buying is actually good for our kids".

Thailand has been attempting to keep a lid on sugar intake among its people, too. Based on data from Mahidol University's Institute of Nutrition, Thai people consume a lot more sugar daily than the recommended amount. Figures from 2010 revealed that Thais consume an average of 33.8kg of sugar per person per year.

This means one Thai consumes around 23 teaspoons of sugar daily. But the recommended sugar intake level is only four to eight teaspoons per person, per day.

That said, Thailand has to immediately do something to whittle down people's waistlines because excessive sugar consumption is known to cause several non-communicable illnesses, including obesity and diabetes. But the country's approach might be different from that in the United States.

While the US government's effort in dealing with sugar consumption, as well as other diet-related issues, is to raise public awareness regarding the importance of studying product labels thoroughly before purchase, Thailand is looking into tackling the price of these products.

The National Reform Steering Assembly has recently pushed the government to increase the excise tax for beverages with high sugar content, which are apparently harmful to health. They include, for instance, fizzy drinks, bottled green tea beverages, coffee and fruit juices. With this higher excise tax on sweet beverages, the government is expected to receive more than 10 billion baht more in revenue a year.

The levy on sugary drinks is actually not a new concept in Thailand but it has been discussed and studied by several governments in the past, but has yet to be put into effect. The idea has received a mixed bag of reaction from a lot of parties involved. While some might praise the initiative, others, especially manufacturers, are against the idea of increasing tax.

Some nutrition scholars go so far as to point out that this tax measure might not work in reality because higher prices of sweet beverages might only affect certain groups of people in this country -- the poor to be precise. Consumers who find these drinks affordable will still find them affordable, especially when the high level of sugar can satisfy their craving.

So adding more excise tax to sweet products to make them more expensive so that less people buy them sounds like a solution that does not fix the root cause of the problem. It seems a quick fix that will also at the same time make the government richer.

Thailand has had campaigns to fix food-related healthcare problems among its people -- be they activities to raise understanding about proper salt intake, obesity and so forth. But it seems many of these campaigns only touch people on the surface.

Perhaps it's about time for the country to take lessons from other nations. Why does the US shine a spotlight on nutrition labels? Because its citizens pay attention to them. And why do Americans pay attention to nutrition labels? Because they have been educated to do so. After all, education is the basic solution to almost all social issues.

Changing people's eating habits should be done on an ongoing basis. One-off action will not be able to make any long-term improvement.

Education should be at the start point for all this. And it should begin at the family level. Parents should educate their kids from the very start about what and how they should eat, what is bad for their health, how they should study the product before buying it, etc. When these kids go to school, they will be able to decide for themselves what and what not to put into their mouths. When they become parents, they will then be able to teach their children likewise.

Such a long-term measure will definitely take time and collaborative efforts from all associated parties. But it will also definitely make Thailand a physically healthier nation.

Arusa Pisuthipan is the deputy editor of the Life section of the Bangkok Post.

Arusa Pisuthipan

Deputy editor of the Life section

Arusa Pisuthipan is the deputy editor of the Life section of the Bangkok Post.

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