Govt eyes sugar tax

Measure intended to force behavioral choices

A sugar tax aimed at forcing people to cut the consumption of sugary drinks and ultimately lead to a reduction in the high level of noncommunicable diseases (NCDs) in the Bahamian population appears to be on the way.

Though Prime Minister and Minister of Finance Philip Davis said in his 2023/2024 Budget Communication last week that there will be no new taxes in the new fiscal year, which starts July 1, the Customs Management (Amendment) Bill, 2023, which the government tabled in the House of Assembly along with the various budget documents, would empower the minister of finance, after consultation with the minister of health, to make regulations providing for the payment of a “health and wellness levy” on the importation of specified goods and domestically manufactured goods “deemed to have a negative impact on health and wellness”.

“We are definitely laying the foundation for what is to come as it relates to sugar-sweetened beverages (SSB),” said Minister of Health and Wellness Dr. Michael Darville, though he stressed yesterday that this is not a revenue generating measure by the government but a move intended to encourage behavioral changes among Bahamians.

“What we are seeing is, if you go and do your research and you see what’s happening in Mexico with the reduction in childhood obesity, you see what’s going on in Barbados with the implementation of sugar-sweetened beverage taxes, you realize that they are beginning to see a positive effect on behavioral modifications, forcing individuals who consume these beverages not taking into consideration the negative effects that this extra sugar has on diabetes, on cardiovascular disease, inflammatory processes [to change their behavior].”

Darville noted a direct link between the high consumption of sugar and the high level of NCDs in the population. 

He pointed to the most recent Bahamas STEPS 2019 report which “shows that we are on the way to destruction and we need to implement some aggressive measures”.

The report, subtitled, “2019 Bahamas NCD Risk Factor”, which Darville tabled in the House of Assembly in March, stated, “Not only are more Bahamians dying today from NCDs than any other disease category, they are dying at younger ages.”

The report said, “There is a 20 percent chance of a Bahamian dying early or prematurely from an NCD.

“In fact, for 2019, The Bahamas was identified among the countries in the region of the Americas with the highest probability of dying too young from an NCD.

“The probability in The Bahamas is 19.9 percent compared to the regional probability average of 14 percent (Costa Rica, 9.5 percent at low end and Haiti, 31.3 percent at the high end).”

The report highlighted the massive burden of NCDs on The Bahamas and called for bold and urgent action at the highest political levels and at the grassroots level to bridge the gap from promise to priority to progress.

“A singular message from the STEPS 2019 data is that The Bahamas is headed in the wrong direction in its NCD trajectory,” the report said.

Darville said yesterday the sugar tax could be beneficial for the health and wellness outcomes of the country.

“I’ve been working on this for the last year, the ban on chemically produced trans fats, a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages, and a tax on naturally occurring trans fats, which have all been indicated in chronic noncommunicable diseases and with the elimination, we will begin to see more improved responses with our patients who suffer from chronic noncommunicable diseases and try to keep them out of the hospital,” Darville said.

“… This particular tax is not to put a burden on the Bahamian people, it is really to deter behavior and allow people to choose.  And so, it opens the idea that if you put a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages what alternatives are you going to offer people; and so, this particular tax can be used to allow Bahamian people to choose a better selection of drinks rather than consuming sugars, which actually is a very serious inflammatory mechanism.”

Darville said these kinds of taxes have had great benefits elsewhere in changing behavioral patterns.

The health and wellness minister said while the legislation foreshadows what’s to come, it will not come without consultations. 

“I said this before … when I mentioned that we’re looking at adding sugar-sweetened beverages taxes, I did get a pushback from the opposition, of course, from the local industry, the local manufacturers, indicating that by doing this you will put them out of business, you will cause loss of employment; you’re targeting them and you’re not targeting everyone who is selling sugar products,” he said.

“The reality is, the evidence-based research that’s coming from the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) is clear.

“Sugar-sweetened beverages is one of the major culprits and we see it even in our local food stores – the price of soft drinks is pretty much less than water – and without proper education, people just keep drinking it only to their demise, and they are affecting the delivery of healthcare services.

“I can tell you this much, at the Princess Margaret Hospital, the majority of patients that are recurring are those who suffer from chronic noncommunicable diseases, and when we look at the nutritional content of their diet, we realize that we need to do a better job as a country and find ways to change dietary behavior.

“It doesn’t happen by just saying it. I can sit down and say, ‘listen, you can’t be doing this’, but the reality is that doesn’t really change the behavior.

“You have to do some behavior modification type tax that drives them in a particular direction, and at the end of the day, it helps them to select better alternatives, which reduces the cost of healthcare delivery and it prolongs life and keeps them out of hospital. And so, it is a health tool by using a tax to change behavior; simple education does not work all the time.”

The World Cancer Research Fund International said taxes on SSB – recommended by the WHO and increasingly used by governments across the world – are an effective intervention to reduce sugar consumption.

It reported that Barbados introduced its SSB tax in 2015 – when just 10 countries worldwide had implemented such a policy. It targeted locally produced and imported sugary carbonated soft drinks, juice drinks, sports drinks, syrups and others; 100 percent natural fruit juice, coconut water, plain milk and evaporated milk, as well as powdered drinks and non-sugar sweeteners were exempt.

“An evaluation of the tax a year after implementation found a decrease in sales of SSBs and an increase in sales of bottled water,” the fund reported.

“Of concern, however, researchers also found that some consumers may have responded to the tax by purchasing cheaper sugary drinks, raising questions about the design of the tax.”

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Candia Dames

Candia Dames is the executive editor of The Nassau Guardian.

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