PETALING JAYA: Unicef and World Health Organisation (WHO) are recommending that a tax be imposed on sugary drinks.
In a joint statement, WHO representative to Malaysia, Brunei and Singapore, Dr Lo Ying Ru, and Unicef representative to Malaysia and Special Representative to Brunei, Marianne Clark-Hattingh, said such a tax would have both fiscal and health benefits.
“Taxing sugary drinks is a smart choice for the government, for both health and fiscal benefits.
“It should be seen as a start, not an end point, in making Malaysia’s population and budget, fitter and healthier,” they said.
Just like taxes on alcohol and tobacco, making unhealthy drinks more expensive would be a positive step as poorer households were more responsive to price increases and limit their sugar consumption, they said.
This in turn, would reduce healthcare expenditures and improve their wellbeing in the long run, they argued.
“The evidence is clear - increasing the price of sugary drinks will decrease their consumption,” they said, adding that 36 countries were implementing some form of tax on sugary drinks, including Brunei, France, Mexico, Thailand and Britain.
The most disadvantaged groups, they said, were often left with little alternatives, as unhealthy food and drinks were usually cheaper than healthier options.
A recent Unicef study in low-cost flats in Malaysia revealed that 97% of households said that high food prices prevented them from preparing healthy meals for their children.
In addition to the effects on their health, poor households in Malaysia would also stand to benefit from improved social services made possible by increased government revenue generated by this tax.
“When implemented in combination with other measures – such as education, subsidies on healthy foods, nutrition labelling, and food marketing regulations – the cumulative impact on obesity would be strong.
“We call on the government and corporate sector to make healthy, nutritious food accessible and affordable, especially for the poorest,” they said.
Malaysia, they warned, was one of the fattest countries in Asia, with nearly half of adults being overweight or obese, and the children increasingly affected as well.
In 2006, 7.7% of Malaysia’s five-to-19 year olds were obese and a decade later, this figure has risen to an alarming 12.7%, according to data from WHO.
“There is scientific evidence of a clear relationship between consumption of sugary drinks, weight gain and obesity.
"A single can of soft drink contains on average 8.5 teaspoons of sugar, the daily limit for a child aged four to five," according to WHO.
“More than one in three Malaysian students consume at least one can of soft drink a day, according to the National Health and Morbidity Survey (Adolescent Health Survey) 2017,” they said.
In Mexico, revenue from the tax generated over RM22.8bil (US$5.7 billion) and part of it was used to install drinking water fountains in all schools across the country.