Not for the first time, Professor Sir Henry Fraser, a respected retired medical professional and professor emeritus of the University of the West Indies Faculty of Medicine, this week called for the tax on sweetened beverages to rise from ten per cent to 30 per cent.
In fact, when the Freundel Stuart administration first announced back in 2014 that it would impose the tax effective June 2015, Sir Henry had recommended 30 per cent, but his recommendation was ignored.
His argument is that a higher tax would lead to a fall in consumption of these drinks, and by extension, we will begin to see a drop in non-communicable diseases (NCDs).
The professor has good reason to be concerned about the health of this nation.
NCDs cost the economy $145 million a year, rising to $200 million when losses due to lost productivity are added, Minister of Health John Boyce said last year.
Even more alarmingly, the Pan American Health Organization representative here Dr Godfrey Xuereb last year revealed that in 2011 almost half of our teens were overweight and obese and that consumption of sugar and fat were two of the main contributors.
He also said back then that a 2005 study had shown that the average Barbadian consumed four times the recommended amount of sugar, with 40 per cent of total sugar intake coming from sugar-sweetened drinks.
Clearly, these figures suggest something has to be done.
However, is a sin tax on fizzy drinks the answer, particularly for a population that is already taxed to our noses and is likely to see it as another case of state sponsored secondary mugging?
There is very little evidence to show that such a tax will have the desired effect of reducing obesity-related diseases. One of the most quoted cases is that of Mexico, which in 2014 introduced an excise tax of one peso (the equivalent of one Barbadian cent) per litre on sugary drinks.
Some studies show a near ten per cent drop in consumption in the first two years, although others have shown that there are signs that sales are returning to their usual trajectory.
Scientists have said it is much too early to calculate its effect on health, and Sir Henry himself seemed uncertain, although he was much clearer on the impact of a tax rise on Government coffers.
“We can improve the Government coffers,” he told the Senate, “and we might have a significant impact on the consumption of soft drinks by young people, especially children.” The underlying word here is ‘might’.
In his presentation last year, Dr Xuereb spoke of sugar intake being “an ingrained part of behaviour” which we needed to change.
Last July, Consultant Pediatrician at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital Professor Anne St John revealed a 2012 survey done among 609 Class 3 students (children ages 9-10) drawn from Government primary schools, showed 31 per cent of them were overweight, and 17 per cent showed signs of high blood pressure, while a 2005 study revealed that 27 per cent of the students were obese.
Back in 2011, prime minister Dr Ralph Gonsalves of St Vincent & the Grenadines told the United Nations, “We must also consider the role of the state and civil society in promoting healthy lifestyles and protecting local citizens from environmental harm and trade imbalances that make an imported hamburger, French fries and a carbonated beverage cheaper and more readily available than a nutritious, locally produced meal.”
Herein lies part of the problem. For, no matter whether it is a ten per cent or a 30 per cent tax, a bottle of soda and a piece of macaroni pie are still a lot more affordable and readily available than healthy foods. Therefore, if Government is really serious about the nation’s health the emphasis ought to be on ensuring healthy foods are affordable.
The administration should also consider forcing the manufacturers to cut down on the added sugar in those drinks.
In the United Kingdom, where a similar tax is due to take effect next month, the manufacturers, who will be hit, have already begun to reformulate drinks to come in below the sugar tax threshold.
There is no doubt that we are consuming too much sugar – and fat – and we as a people are putting on too much weight.
But in addition to terribly expensive healthy foods and more affordable junk, we have also become much too sedentary. Ten steps to the bus stop are ten steps too many for us, so we wait just where we are for the van to stop for us.
Our average day is spent sitting at the office, using the phone to talk to co-workers in the next cubicle, or surfing the net.
Our children no longer exercise at home or at school, we employ labour-saving devices so we burn few calories while cleaning, for example, and we pick up the phone, order the pizza – or macaroni pie – and have someone deliver it.
True, there are a few people who go to the gym or take a walk – sometimes lazily – around the Garrison, but for the most part, we have become an inactive bunch, making a tax on sugary drinks pointless and an absurd distraction that impacts the poorest among us.
While we’re at it, will Government also consider taxing sweets and confectionaries?
So what should be done? We have already recommended making healthy foods affordable. In addition, we strongly suggest that consumers gradually and voluntarily cut back on sugar intake, and we must exercise more.
When Dr St John spoke last July at a session on childhood obesity to the national committee monitoring the rights of the child, she said attitudes towards exercise had changed, and one of the recommendations was a mandatory increase in the number of hours allocated to physical activity in schools. We agree.
If we are truly interested in reducing NCDs, let us do the necessary hard work to achieve this goal. A sin tax on drinks is a cop out.