As soar­ing obe­sity rates are pit­ted against warn­ings of job losses, Par­lia­ment re­mains un­de­cided, writes Steve Kret­z­mann

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Mem­bers of Par­lia­ment (MPs) this week gave short shrift to the sugar in­dus­try’s re­sis­tance to the proposed 20% sugar-sweet­ened bev­er­ages (SSB) tax. This comes amid an avalanche of pub­lic health statis­tics, pre­sented by civil so­ci­ety and aca­demic in­sti­tu­tions sup­port­ing the tax at pub­lic hear­ings held in Par­lia­ment on Tues­day.

Mem­bers of the Stand­ing Com­mit­tee on Fi­nance and of the Port­fo­lio Com­mit­tee on Health were bom­barded with alarm­ing fig­ures on the obe­sity rate in South Africa, as well as re­search link­ing the preva­lence of non­com­mu­ni­ca­ble dis­eases (NCDs) – such as di­a­betes and heart disease – with sugar in­take.

The non-nu­tri­tional value of calo­ries con­tained in SSBs – which is the rea­son for the sugar tax hav­ing been mooted by Fi­nance Min­is­ter Pravin Gord­han in his bud­get speech last year – was sin­gled out by in­sti­tu­tions such as the schools of pub­lic health at the uni­ver­si­ties of Cape Town (UCT) and of the Wit­wa­ter­srand, as well as by the So­ci­ety for En­docrinol­ogy, Me­tab­o­lism and Di­a­betes of SA.

Pro­fes­sor Tolu Oni, from the UCT School of Pub­lic Health, cited a Global Bur­den of Disease Study which showed that:

Poor diet gen­er­ated more disease than phys­i­cal in­ac­tiv­ity, smok­ing and al­co­hol con­sump­tion com­bined;

Sugar calo­ries pro­moted fat stor­age and hunger; and

What do you think of the proposed sugar tax? Should govern­ment act to pre­vent peo­ple from overindulging in sugar and, in so do­ing, ease obe­sity rates? Are the in­dus­try’s dire warn­ings about job losses jus­ti­fied?

SMS us on 35697 us­ing the key­word SUGAR and tell us what you think. In­clude your name and prov­ince. SMSes cost R1.50

Mod­er­ate ex­er­cise alone did not de­crease the in­ci­dence of di­a­betes, a disease closely linked to obe­sity.

She added that sys­tem­atic re­views re­vealed that al­ter­na­tives to sugar tax, such as pub­lic health ed­u­ca­tion, had had lit­tle ef­fect on sugar con­sump­tion.

This was borne out by many of those present at the packed par­lia­men­tary hear­ing choos­ing to drink Sprite or Coke dur­ing the lunch break.

Karen Hof­man, direc­tor of the Wits-based pro­gramme Price­less SA – de­signed to en­able smart de­ci­sions about health in­vest­ments in South Africa – said there had been a 16% in­crease in obe­sity among South Africans over the past five years.

One-fifth (20%) of this in­crease could be at­trib­uted to con­sum­ing SSBs, she added.

Ac­cord­ing to Pro­fes­sor Melvyn Free­man, the health depart­ment’s chief direc­tor of NCDs, 40% of South African women and 10% of men were now obese. “We have an ex­plo­sion of NCDs in South Africa,” said Free­man. This, he added, meant a third of all deaths among those aged below 60 were as a re­sult of NCDs.

The proposed tax amounts to a charge of R2.29 per gram of sugar (amount­ing to an ex­tra R2.42 per litre of Coke).

IFP MP Mkhuleko Hlengwa went fur­ther in the par­lia­men­tary de­bate, propos­ing that sales of SSBs to un­der-18s be banned.

In­dus­try play­ers op­pos­ing the tax in­cluded the Bev­er­age As­so­ci­a­tion of SA (BevSA), the SA Fruit Grow­ers As­so­ci­a­tion and the SA Sugar As­so­ci­a­tion. They ques­tioned the aca­demic in­sti­tu­tions about their ap­par­ent lack of in-depth re­search us­ing reg­u­la­tory in­stru­ments to de­ter­mine max­i­mum sugar con­tent and proposed that a to­tal di­etary in­take study be un­der­taken

While con­ced­ing that South Africa had an obe­sity prob­lem, all three bod­ies ex­pressed con­cern that the in­dus­try would face huge job losses.

The sugar as­so­ci­a­tion cal­cu­lated that a drop in sugar sales would re­sult in a loss of 3 990 per­ma­nent jobs and 6 300 sea­sonal jobs, with small-scale grow­ers be­ing the hard­est hit.

Ma­pule Ncanywa, BevSA’s ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor, said 75 000 jobs in the sec­tor were at risk, but in its pre­sen­ta­tion, Trea­sury put over­all job losses at “about 5 000 at most”.

But job losses seemed to make lit­tle im­pres­sion on com­mit­tee mem­bers, who asked why the in­dus­try could not di­ver­sify or ap­proach Par­lia­ment to dis­cuss solutions, such as al­ter­na­tive uses for sugar – for in­stance, sugar pro­duc­tion for bio­fu­els – and in­creas­ing im­port tar­iffs on sugar.

Dr Pa­trick Mae­sela, an MP on the health com­mit­tee, ex­pressed his dis­may that the ar­gu­ment for job pro­tec­tion came “at the ex­pense of the health of our peo­ple”.

Even if the tax was not in­tro­duced, he added, “What guar­an­tees do we have that those jobs will still be there?”

The sugar in­dus­try was also taken to task for not hav­ing ac­tively ed­u­cated com­mu­ni­ties about nu­tri­tion.

The Food and Al­lied Work­ers’ Union, usu­ally the lead­ing de­fender of jobs, was san­guine, call­ing for mean­ing­ful di­a­logue and con­struc­tive de­bate to mit­i­gate job losses.

Fi­nance com­mit­tee chair Yunus Car­rim sug­gested com­mit­tee mem­bers tally fig­ures pre­sented on all sides to de­ter­mine the cost of SSB con­sump­tion to healthcare against po­ten­tial losses in jobs and rev­enue.

“It strikes me that peo­ple who have no vested ma­te­rial in­ter­est [in the sugar in­dus­try] are all tak­ing one po­si­tion [in sup­port of a sugar tax],” he said.

He added that no ex­pert dis­agreed about the link be­tween SSB con­sump­tion, obe­sity and NCDs, ex­press­ing sur­prise that the sugar in­dus­try had not “mo­bilised sci­en­tists to pro­vide con­trary views”.

He urged com­mit­tee mem­bers to en­gage in fur­ther con­sul­ta­tions and con­vene sep­a­rate meet­ings with labour, in­dus­try and civil so­ci­ety.

He said fur­ther oral sub­mis­sions to Par­lia­ment would be sched­uled for next month.


FOWL PLAY­ERS Mem­bers of the Food and Al­lied Work­ers’ Union marched to the EU em­bassy in Pre­to­ria on Wed­nes­day to pe­ti­tion against se­vere job losses in the poul­try in­dus­try, which they blamed pri­mar­ily on cheap dumped im­ports

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