Barbados doubles sugar taxes to fight disease
In the past three decades, obesity has become a global epidemic, accompanied by a tide of chronic diseases like diabetes, hypertension, and heart disease. And the burden is growing. By 2030, it’s predicted that 1 in 5 women and 1 in 7 men will be living with obesity, or over 1 billion people globally. By 2025, it is estimated that the consequences of obesity will cost health systems US$1.2 trillion annually. This makes a strong case for investment in preventing obesity, rather than the resulting illnesses.
There are many complex factors behind the obesity epidemic, but a number of studies studies have singled out one major driver: sugar-sweetened beverages. There’s a lot of strong evidence that links regular long-term drinking of SSBs – especially carbonated soft drinks – with weight gain and a higher risk of various chronic conditions.
For instance, drinking one SSB per day is linked to:
- At least a 16% higher risk of type 2 diabetes.
- A 20% higher risk of cardiovascular disease (heart disease).
- A 39% higher risk of non-alcoholic fatty liver disease.
While it’s clear that sugary drinks pose a serious risk to our health, the processed food industry uses lobbying and other tactics to keep their products cheap, widely available, and aggressively marketed. But many governments have acted – despite industry complaints – to protect their populations from these health-harming drinks.
But are they effective?
SSB taxes are one simple and effective way to lower consumption, especially if the retail price is raised by 20% or more. They can also be considered a triple win for governments, because they 1) improve population health; 2) generate tax revenue that can be earmarked for health; and 3) reduce healthcare costs, disability, and productivity losses due to obesity and NCDs linked to SSB consumption.
Here are a few results from countries that have implemented bans:
- The Bahamas introduced the highest and most comprehensive sugar tax in the world, imposing an extra duty of 75% on sugary drinks as well as foods. The tax became effective in October 2018. By December 2019, it had collected over US$5.4 million, with the revenue being used for health and wellness programmes.
- Mexico introduced an SSB tax in 2014, resulting in a price rise of about 11%. Two years after implementation, there was a 7.6% reduction in sales, while sales of untaxed beverages such as water increased by 2.1%. It’s predicted that over 10 years, the Mexican SSB tax will have prevented 239,900 cases of obesity. Of these, 39% would be cases of obesity prevented in children. By saving costs such as health care, the tax would save almost US$4 per every dollar spent on its implementation.
- In 2018, South Africa introduced a 10% SSB tax, which was followed by a 29% reduction in consumption. This reduction was most drastic among people in urban households with lower socioeconomic status, where SSB purchases dropped by 57%.
Latin America and the Caribbean put people first
When Barbados implemented an initial tax on ѕugаr-ѕwееtеnеd beverages of 10% in 2015, it was one of just ten countries doing so (as well as Chile, Mexico, Finland, Hungary, France, Mauritius, French Polynesia, Samoa, and Tonga). In 2022, Barbados doubled the tax – increasing is to 20%. Today, 73 countries are taxing SSBs, including 21 countries across the Latin America and Caribbean region. There are big wins to celebrate, but for civil society organisations working towards healthier populations in the region, progress made so far is just the beginning.
The Healthy Caribbean Coalition (HCC) and the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Barbados are among the organisations that helped move the Barbados tax increase forward. For them, the tax is part of a broader agenda to fight unhealthy diets. They are working to see the implementation of diverse healthy food policies including taxation, subsidies for fresh fruits and vegetables, awareness raising campaigns, mandatory warning labels for unhealthy foods, and strict regulation of the sale and marketing of unhealthy foods and drinks in and near schools.
Fiscal policies like sugar-sweetened beverage taxes are one way for governments to put population health first - ahead of harmful industry interests - while strengthening their economies. If your government is not doing enough, act on NCDs and demand more!