President Maithripala Sirisena who was once appalled by the sugar content in a popular malt beverage, is now stoically silent on a move to slash a ‘sugar tax’. His silence about efforts to reverse his own initiative, where he made a public call to extend the sugar tax to all sweetened beverages, comes as no surprise however given the ongoing political stalemate in the country.
In the midst of the power struggle that Sri Lanka is embroiled in, the finance ministry earlier this month ordered an immediate 40% reduction in the duty, following a meeting with industry stakeholders. While beverage manufacturers cheered on, the move was quick to receive criticism from health advocates, including former health minister Rajitha Senaratna, who condemned the move as irresponsible and damaging towards the fight against non-communicable diseases (NCDs).
The levy was introduced last year, where a tax of 50 cents per gramme of sugar was imposed on sweetened beverages. These taxes were part of the previous government’s strategy to suppress the alarming spread of NCDs in the country. A leading beverage manufacturer in Sri Lanka revealed that it experienced a 30% drop in sales volumes following the introduction of the tax in November 2017. It also encouraged several beverage brands to introduce sugar free variants of popular drinks.
Sri Lankans are used to consuming a lot of sugar with their tea, even as much as nine teaspoons per day on an average, which was a boost for the manufacturers
Meanwhile, MP Bandula Gunawardena noted, that the business community was grateful for this concession, adding that the Finance Ministry was directed to exempt soft drinks which contain less than six grammes of sugar and sweetened fruit beverages by up to nine grammes from the levy. The Ministry has been instructed to cut the tax to 30 cents from the earlier 50 cents per gramme of sugar.
Health campaigners however are not pleased with this move. Director of the Non-Communicable Disease Alliance of Sri Lanka, Dr. Mahen Wijesuriya says the move only benefits manufacturers of sweetened beverages but not the consumer. “The consumer would make purchases according to their preference of a beverage, nobody measures the sugar content in their food,” Dr. Wijesuriya said. “But the drop from 50 to 30 cents per gramme is something we don’t appreciate. We feel it is done not for the benefit of the general public but for the benefit of the manufacturer alone. That may be the business angle of it but we are deeply worried that further reductions and similar measures would come about. We don’t like this trend of reductions,” he exclaimed.
He points that while there was no sugar tax before, former minister Senaratna implemented the tax through a Cabinet decision, noting of the strong the advocacy behind the implementation. “This tax prevailed until the ‘new government’ as you call it came into power. We had been requesting authorities to analyze the content of sweetened beverages to make it mandatory for manufacturers to indicate the sugar content on labels of all beverages. This too did not materialise,” Dr. Wijesuriya laments. He added that efforts were also underway to establish a similar practice for solids such as cakes and other sweetened foods by younger consumers.
He believes that Sri Lankan consumers were gradually getting accustomed to this reduction. “What we were trying to do is not to eliminate sugar completely but to reduce consumption. Sri Lankans are used to consuming a lot of sugar with their tea, even as much as nine teaspoons per day on an average, which was a boost for the manufacturers. We never received a consultation on the subject. I don’t think the minister of the previous government would agree with the move but today there is no law and order, so they can do whatever they want. This is what we are worried about.” Asked of his organisation’s next move, he said that they would make an appeal as soon as a new government is in place.
- A tax of 50 cents per gramme of sugar was imposed on sweetened beverages earlier
- Finance ministry earlier this month ordered an immediate 40% reduction in the duty
Nation at risk
Dr. Wijesuriya is not alone in criticising the reduction. While analysts predict that new measures could reduce soft drink prices by 30% public health advocates took to twitter to condemn the government’s negative public health policies. Meanwhile the Government Medical Officers’ Association (GMOA) issuing a statement urged authorities to refrain from taking a final decision on the matter, in a letter addressed to Mahinda Rajapaksa.
Asked if they had received any response to their request, Dr. Haritha Aluthge of the GMOA said there has been no response as there is no government in place. A trade union leader of a local beverage manufacturer has however expressed concern over the GMOA’s statement. “Their concern was that our statement would persuade the government not to reduce the taxes imposed on sweetened beverages which could affect their industry. Yet, the worrying factor for the GMOA is not the economic aspect of this, but the health aspect. What we have said in our press statement and the letter addressed to the new Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa is that if the government wants to promote the industry and also to reduce the taxes, the only way around it is that you improve the technology. This way, you can safely reduce the amount of sugar and promote the beverage with the reduction of taxes,” Dr. Aluthge opines.
He opines that the government puts the health of the nation at grave risk. “As everyone is aware, NCDs like diabetes and hypertension are rising rapidly. In about 20 to 30 years the nation will face a severe crisis, if the trend continues. This is our concern and I have already asked the trade union leader who approached us to make a formal representation,” he said. Though he isn’t confident that any trade union will make such a representation as they are already aware of the stance taken by the GMOA. “We will await a representation to discuss the matter,” he adds.
Of the total number of deaths reported here, more than three quarters are caused by NCDs. In 2016, it was estimated that 10,000 deaths are caused by diabetes each year. Females were identified to be at more risk with the prevalence of diabetes related risk factors
The GMOA meanwhile has requested the health minister of the new government Chamal Rajapaksa to appoint a committee in order to make a technical evaluation on the matter. “The GMOA strongly believes that such matters should be deliberated. If you take Glyphosate for instance, the agro-chemical was banned on technical grounds, but later on they decided to lift the ban on political grounds, not taking any technical details into consideration. This is a similar situation where the taxation was carefully drafted and discussed while health advocacy was taken into decision making. However without any input from the health ministry, they have just taken a political decision to reduce the taxes. This is wrong and we have requested an opportunity for evaluation to consider both sides of the argument.” he notes.
The GMOA also said it held a meeting with the Health Secretary where they requested to have formal representations made with the relevant authorities. “Even though there is no government, the secretaries of ministries are capable of taking decisions with the President,” Dr. Aluthge commented.
Why a sugar tax?
Of the total number of deaths reported in Sri Lanka more than three quarters are caused by NCDs. In 2016, it was estimated that 10,000 deaths are caused by diabetes each year. Females were identified to be at more risk with the prevalence of diabetes related risk factors.
Health experts point out that a daily intake of sugar exceeding the recommended amount will eventually lead to obesity, diabetes, heart disease and tooth decay among a host of non-communicable diseases. They also stress on the need to inculcate the habit of a sugar free lifestyle, especially among youngsters. The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends that a solid daily intake of sugar should not exceed more than 25 grammes per day.
Their guidelines state that in order to prevent obesity and tooth decay, adults and children must reduce their consumption of free sugars to less than 10% of their daily energy intake (equivalent to around 12 teaspoons of table sugar for adults). Governments meanwhile are recommended to take a number of actions to improve availability and access to healthy foods, to encourage healthy diet choices.