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The proposed tax on sugary beverages will not alone succeed in reducing sugar consumption. Members of Parliament agreed that the proposed sugar tax on sugary beverages is just one part of government’s efforts to reduce obesity and related non-communicable diseases, and that more complementary measures were required to win the war against health challenges caused by high sugar intake.

Consumption of sugar-laden food reportedly places a burden in the health sector, resulting in death and job losses due to workers’ ill-health. National Treasury officials were in Parliament to brief the Portfolio Committee on Health and the Standing Committee on Finance on the proposed health promotion levy.

Member of the Standing Committee on Finance Mr Alf Lees said there was a need for “other steps that go way beyond sugar tax”, such as labelling, no selling of sugary drinks in school tuck shops and other related measures.

“Sugar tax just one aspect of dealing with obesity and non-communicable diseases. We need other non-Health Promotion Levy ways of addressing this challenge,” said Mr Lees.

The Chairperson of the Portfolio Committee on Health, Ms Mary-Ann Dunjwa, said: “You are not elevating the issue of jobs lost due to ill-health. There are workers who are laid off because of ill-health. To you that is not important, what is important is investment. We can’t just leave it in between cracks. In our report to Parliament, we need those statistics.”   

In a presentation to the two committees, the National Treasury described obesity as “an epidemic and a major risk factor for the growing burden of non-communicable diseases (NCDs) including heart diseases, diabetes, stroke and some cancers.” Taxes on foods high in sugar can be an important element in a strategy to address diet-related diseases.

In 2013, 51 percent of total deaths were due to NCDs. The increased NCD-related health-care costs and increased utilisation rates will place a burden on the public and private health-care sectors.

Member of the Portfolio Committee on Health, Dr Patrick Maesela said the move should be welcome, as it was not about the total ban of sugar but an effort to save people’s lives. “We are talking about an industry that is producing something that kills people. Let people live first before thinking money.”

Treasury official Mr Ismail Momoniat argued that changing the price will lower consumption of sugary beverages, saying: “It has to hit people in the pocket, so they can consume less.” Government is also developing a jobs mitigation and creation plan to respond to potential job losses as a result of the introduction of a sugar tax.

Mr Mpho Legote from National Treasury said: “When we started the process, we sought to collaborate with other stakeholder to come up with a mitigation plan for potential job losses. Government presented a proposed job creation and mitigation plan, labour put their proposal (alternative) and business also came up with its own proposal.

“In terms of the jobs mitigation plan that we put forward as government, we seek to identify policy measures and identify key institutions that should be involved in the implementation of the mitigation plan,” Mr Legote said, adding that job losses could be felt over three years.

Mr Matthew Parks from the Confederation of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) said the challenge was to find a balance between health imperatives and possible job losses. “There is not a single member of Cosatu who doesn’t have a family member suffering from diabetes, obesity, or cancer, but we are also worried about job losses. That’s a challenge.

“We need to reformulate, localise production, distribute healthier products and use 100 percent local products like plastic bottles, labeling and try protecting jobs in the industry,” said Mr Parks. 

Mr Tshepo Marumule from Beverage South Africa told the Committees that it was difficult to say sugar tax will decrease consumption. He added that the reformulation of products would result in less demand for sugar in agriculture, which could result in job losses.

Mr Derek Hanekom, a member of the Standing Committee on Finance, said: “There is a health problem here and we need to solve it.The sugar industry is a huge contributor to the problem. If we have to introduce measures to reduce consumption we have to, and deal with consequence.

“If you look at the measures introduced to reduce smoking a few years ago, the tobacco industry was hit hard. Compared to a sugar tax, this is really a soft measure. There were job losses on tobacco farms as well.

“The sugar industry is in trouble. It has just come out of a serious drought and I believe the introduction of this tax could be the medication that the industry needs. Bite the bullet and support it,” said Mr Hanekom.

Sakhile Mokoena
6 September 2017