Good start but long way to go, experts say ahead of sugar tax

The Galen Centre for Health and Social Policy says one practical approach would be to reformulate at least half of all soft drinks to ensure lower sugar content.

PETALING JAYA: A think tank warns that it will be difficult to change the eating habits of Malaysians, as Putrajaya prepares to impose an excise tax of 40 sen per litre on sweetened beverages.

The Galen Centre for Health and Social Policy said tackling obesity and other health-related woes effectively would require a better programme that would teach people to make informed decisions.

“Changing behaviour is really difficult. This sugar tax may not be enough, but it is an excellent start. However, we should set targets to gauge its effectiveness,” said CEO Azrul Mohd Khalib.

Azrul said a practical aim would be to see at least half of all soft drinks reformulated to ensure lower sugar content.

“Children and young people need healthy diets, and adults in Malaysia are getting increasingly obese, even morbidly obese,” he told FMT.

The so-called sugar tax, to be imposed next month, will see an excise tax of 40 sen per litre on sweetened beverages with more than five grams of sugar or sugar-based sweetener per 100ml.

This includes carbonated drinks as well as flavoured and other non-alcoholic beverages.

The tax will also be imposed on juice or vegetable-based drinks with over 12g of sugar per 100ml.

While the health ministry and other related agencies have welcomed the tax as a step towards addressing issues such as obesity, critics say it will not be enough to make a difference.

The sugar tax was expected to begin on April 1 but was postponed to July 1 to give manufacturers and the Customs Department time to make preparations.

Health Minister Dzulkefly Ahmad said the sugar tax is limited to manufacturers for the time being, and that there are no plans to extend it to eateries and restaurants selling sugary drinks.

“We are now at the stage of educating consumers to drink less coloured, sugary drinks. That is the only way at the moment that we can discourage consumers from these drinks,” he said.

Azrul said taxing at the manufacturing level rather than at retail increased the tax system’s effectiveness, noting that it was similar to the system employed in the UK.

“This would have the intended result of manufacturers taking the initiative and being incentivised to reformulate, reduce the sugar content, reduce portion sizes and even introduce healthier alternatives to avoid being taxed.

“This is by far a better and sustainable approach,” he said.

Entrepreneur Anas Lutfi Norman, who recently designed an alternative to traditional condensed milk-based creamers that has no white sugar, said manufacturers usually cut corners to make a profit.

He said this is the reason for sugary products and the use of unhealthy ingredients in many products.

Therefore, he said, it is the manufacturers who need to be educated on the matter so that they incorporate healthier ingredients and reduce the amount of sugar used in their products.

Anas agreed that it would be difficult to get consumers to change their ways. “We can educate them but to what extent? They still want to enjoy their food and any reduction or removal of sugar will compromise its taste.”

He suggested that Putrajaya spearhead efforts to encourage budding entrepreneurs and businesses to come up with food products that would taste the same even when low in sugar and calories.

“When they are easily available to the masses, it will mean that manufacturing costs can go down for these entrepreneurs as with an increase in demand, they can reduce the cost with a higher volume of production.”

He proposed extending the sugar tax to ingredients and other food products if it will not be imposed at eateries or restaurants any time soon.

He noted that these were among the more popular places for Malaysians to grab a bite. Singling out coffee shops, ice-cream parlours, dessert bars and pastry stands, Anas said these outlets should be subject to the sugar tax as it was their products that had a lot of sugar.

“A regular bubble tea, for example, can contain 20 teaspoons of sugar per 500ml, which exceeds the maximum amount of daily sugar intake per day,” he said, referring to the popular Taiwanese tea-based drink.

He said if that could not be achieved in the short term, then the health ministry could task officials with monitoring the amount of sugar used in these products to see if the content is safe for consumers.

If this does not work, he said, “they should be taxed and forced to sell the products with a safe and acceptable level of sugar per menu item”.