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Sugar tax could prevent obesity - Wits researchers

- Kemantha Govender

Implementing a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages could prevent more South Africans, especially younger ones, from becoming obese, according to Wits researchers.

Professor Karen Hofman and Aviva Tugendhaft from Priority Cost Effective Lessons for Systems Strengthening South Africa (PRICELESS SA) – based at the Wits School of Public Health – shared research based evidence on obesity and the sugar-sweetened beverage tax (SSB tax) for South Africa at a media briefing on 20 April 2016.

A SSB tax for South Africa was announced by the Minister of Finance Pravin Gordhan in his 2016 budget speech with implementation expected in April 2017.

The researchers stressed that tax could have an impact on obesity and that in the absence of preventive measures the country will face increased obesity and related diseases in the next few years.

South Africa has a growing obesity burden with 39% of women and 11% of men obese, and is among the top 10 global consumers of sugary drinks.

Hofman said that it is projected that there could be a 16% increase in obesity by 2017 and 20% of this increase will be due to SSBs. She added that obese workers cost their employers 50% more in paid off time than non-obese colleagues and said research also showed that overweight adolescents have a 70% chance of becoming overweight adults.

Hofman said that food labeling and advertising is crucial for healthier eating.

She said if we start putting warning labels on products, it could start changing the way people consume these products. According to Hofman, South Africa is lagging behind in terms of food labeling and is concerned that about the format  of food labels. In South Africa these are normally found on the back of products in very small letters, she said.

The SSB tax is part of the National Strategic Plan for Non-Communicable Diseases and the Obesity Strategic Plan and will need to be followed by a series of other cost effective measures to address the growing obesity epidemic in the country.