The South African government’s main weapon to battle obesity in the country was the implementation of a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages (SSB) known as the Health Promotion Levy (HPL).
This came into effect back in April 2018, following a recommendation made by the World Health Organization, in an attempt to reduce citizens’ sugar intake and curb obesity in the country.
Industry leaders have said that the jury is out on whether the sugar tax alone will be enough to combat obesity, which is regarded as one of the risk factors for non-communicable diseases (NCDs) such as heart disease, stroke, cancer and diabetes.
This was according to a study by researchers from the Division of Human Nutrition and the Centre for Statistical Consultation at Stellenbosch University, who said that among the unconvinced were registered dietitians and key industry role-players (KIRs),
The researchers surveyed dietitians and KIRs on their awareness and opinions of the HPL, perceived SSB purchasing of consumers and the barriers or facilitators for the implementation of the HPL.
The findings of their study were published recently in the South African Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
The research findings indicated that dietitians and KIRs held the perception that the HPL was not adequate to have a sustainable impact on lowering NCDs and obesity.
“Dietitians and KIRs were positive about the HPL although the majority agreed that the implementation of a sugar tax alone will not make a difference because multiple factors contribute to NCDs and obesity.
“They believed the HPL of 11% was too little to have an impact on the purchasing behaviour of consumers. Dietitians did report a perceived decrease in the daily purchasing of SSBs by their clients in favour of mainly sugar-free beverages and water since the implementation of the HPL. Some dietitians were concerned that SSBs were substituted with other sugar-containing food items,” the report stated.
The researchers said that corresponded with other studies showing that nutrition interventions targeting specific foods or beverages might lead to adverse compensatory behaviour, such as increased consumption of alternative but similarly unhealthy foods and beverages.
The researchers added that while most KIRs agreed that the food industry understood the government’s rationale to implement the HPL, they also held the opinion that consumers were neither aware of nor understood the sugar taxation legislation.
“Consumers’ lack of knowledge as well as their habitual purchasing of sugary drinks were regarded as key barriers to the successful implementation of the HPL,” the report said.
An alternate tool that could be used was the importance of educating consumers about the sugar tax legislation, the researchers said.
They said the findings from their study underscored the importance of an enabling environment that supported the availability and accessibility of healthy food choices in various settings as a vital cornerstone of the effectiveness of the HPL.
The researchers added that more should be done to educate South Africans about the goal of the sugar tax and to create a supportive environment to improve their overall health and nutritional status.
Earlier this year in September, the National Treasury and South African Revenue Service published for public comment the Draft Rates and Monetary Amounts and Amendment of Revenue Laws Bill, which will see an increase in the sugar tax.
The bill, which includes an increase in the Health Promotion Levy, is due to take effect on April 1, 2025.
The SA Canegrowers was not happy about it.
Thomas Funke, the CEO of SA Canegrowers, said the government had repeatedly undertaken to consult the sugar industry and its stakeholders regarding the effectiveness of the levy and its socio-economic impact on the sector, but had not done so.
“The publication of the increase in the absence of such consultation is therefore a bad faith move by the National Treasury that will have far-reaching negative implications for the already struggling industry, its stakeholders, and workers throughout the value chain.”