With one in five Hongkongers overweight, government urged to implement WHO call to tax all soft drinks

Administration declines to say whether it will impose such a tax to curb obesity, while retailers express concern over the cost implications

PUBLISHED : Friday, 23 September, 2016, 12:01pm
UPDATED : Friday, 23 September, 2016, 11:30pm

Countries and territories in the region, including Hong Kong, are being urged to consider imposing a tax on all soft drinks to tackle the worsening scourge of obesity.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) made the call following a workshop in Manila, which suggested that sugar-sweetened beverages such as juices and soda were largely to blame for people putting on weight.

It said tax policies would be a comprehensive way to reduce sugar consumption and encourage healthier alternatives.

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But Hong Kong health authorities, which are not implementing such measures even though one in five people are overweight, declined to say whether they would adopt the suggestion, and the local food sector expressed doubts about the proposal.

“The value of taxing sugar-sweetened beverages lies not only in the potential health benefits, but also the enormous revenue-raising potential, ” Dr Shin Young-soo, WHO regional director for the Western Pacific, said. “Tax revenues may be channelled for health promotion activities, potentially resulting in additional health benefits for the public.”

While there is no data on daily sugar consumption by Hongkongers, studies by the Centre for Food Safety and the Consumer Council warned that popular soft drinks such as sour plum and hawthorn drinks are heavily stocked with sugar.

The WHO estimated that 22 to 77 per cent of adolescents drink one or more carbonated soft drink a day, citing data from the agency’s school-based student health surveys carried out in the region.

It recommends the daily added sugar intake for adults should be less than 10 per cent of total energy intake. This translates into less than 50 grams or 12 teaspoons of sugar. The intake should be cut further to 5 per cent for additional health benefits.

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More than 6.2 million children under five years of age are overweight in the Western Pacific region and the rate is increasing at an alarming rate, according to the WHO. One person in four in the region is said to be overweight.

Although the Hong Kong government has not implemented any sugar tax, it did set up a committee last year to study ways to reduce sugar and salt intake, with the aim of cutting it by up to 30 per cent over 10 years.

But the committee, chaired by Executive Councillor Bernard Chan, said earlier it was inclined to adopt a non-legislative or non-mandatory approach by encouraging voluntary participation in a reduction programme and self-discipline within the industry.

A spokesman for the bureau said on Friday that the government would launch a “low-salt-and-sugar” voluntary labelling scheme for pre-packaged food, which would help consumers identify products that do not have high levels of the substances.

Anthony Lock Kwok-on of the Federation of Restaurants and Related Trades said the move would increase costs for manufacturers and restaurants, the burden of which may be passed to consumers.“ Sugar is a daily necessity,” he added.

“Even though the suggestion may be good for public health, a tax on sugar may affect the livelihood of the general public as they will have to pay more.”

Tax revenues may be channelled for health promotion activities, potentially resulting in additional health benefits for the public
The WHO’s Dr Shin Young-soo

Lock also said the government would have to work out a fair and clear system if it decided to introduce such a tax.

The WHO workshop was the first in a series of activities supporting regional countries and territories in developing sugar tax policies given that very few have implemented them.

An expert from Mexico told participants how the sugar beverage tax in that country had resulted in a reduction in sales of sugary drinks and an increase in the purchase of healthier, untaxed alternatives.

The British government plans to introduce a levy on soft drinks in 2018, with studies suggesting a 20 per cent tax could prevent 3.7 million people becoming obese over the next decade and save the nation £10 million (HK$101 million) a year in medical costs by 2025.

The tax, which is expected to generate about £520 million a year, will be imposed on the industry according to the volume of the sugar-sweetened drinks produced or imported. Pure fruit juices, milk-based drinks and products made by small producers will be exempted from the scheme.