Malaysia considering tax on soft drinks to reduce obesity

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As the number of obesity and diabetes cases in Malaysia grows, policymakers and health experts are training their sights on soft drinks or sodas ― so much so that the subject of a soda tax has come up.

Malaysia's Pakatan Harapan administration said it may consider imposing tax on sodas to curb Malaysians' addiction to sugar, which could also provide an alternative source of income to substitute the scrapped Goods and Services Tax.

But from a health perspective, dietitians believe the idea may be misguided.

There is no denying that sugar is at the epicentre of serious health-related problems like obesity, diabetes and even cancer.

Yet a study prepared and published by the Ministry of Health a few years ago found that much of the sugar consumed by Malaysians came from sweeteners used for popular local beverages like teh tarik or coffee instead of sodas.

Which is why dietitians like Mr Brian Lian believe taxing soft drinks won't help address the country's health problem, nor would it contribute much income-wise since the average Malaysian actually drinks much less sodas than widely thought.

"For the purpose of increasing government revenue, if companies reduce sugar content in the products, then the government doesn't stand to earn a lot from this tax," Mr Lian, who is attached to the Sarawak General Hospital, told the Malay Mail.

"After all, artificial sweeteners are available and reducing sugar is the intended effect anyway.

"I say this because sugar content in our own local food is just as high, if not higher than many soft drinks available in our market," he added.

If the primary end-goal is merely to cut sugar intake, then a soda tax may work, Mr Lian said, pointing to the success of governments like the United Kingdom and Mexico in forcing food-and-beverage companies to put less sugar in their products.

But the benefit ends there. Studies of the tax in countries that levy high-sugar soft drinks like in the US showed the move had little effect on countering obesity ― instead of forcing people to drink less soda, it simply drove them to look for cheaper alternatives.

This was corroborated by the research conducted by UK-based Institute of Fiscal Studies.

While the study showed that that the British government did succeed in lowering sugar intake by younger consumers in response to a tax on drinks with sugar content higher than 5g per 100ml, it also found that consumers inclined towards high-sugar diets were undeterred by the price.


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