Sugary drinks are taxed, but that is not enough to stop the obesity epidemic in Asia

Faced with declining markets in Western nations, multinational food corporations are targeting Africa, Asia, and Latin America as new consumers of packaged goods. This move may worsen the worldwide epidemic of chronic illnesses related to diabetes. The government is taking action against obesity-related factors such as unhealthy food. Singapore, where 1 million residents may have diabetes by 2050, could require soda producers to lower sugar content. The obesity and lifestyle diseases are now a long-term “silent” challenge for governments, resulting in increased healthcare costs and productivity losses.

To improve public health, governments must encourage lifestyle changes by educating people and improving access to healthy food.

It’s not a disease that only affects the rich

In Asia, the rural population, which is used to farming, is migrating to urban areas to take up more sedentary jobs in manufacturing and service sectors. These migrant populations also change their eating habits due to the availability of high-calorie food and time constraints. According to a recently published study that included 98,000 Chinese adults, linking obesity solely to wealth is simplistic. Instead, geographic variations in China’s “nutritional transformation” explain the differences in public health.

Two out of every five adults living in the Asia-Pacific are overweight or obese. According to the World Health Organisation , approximately half of all adults in the world with diabetes reside in Asia.

In the Asia-Pacific, obesity is estimated to cost US$166 Billion per year. In Southeast Asian countries, healthcare costs and productivity losses are the highest in Indonesia ($2 to $4 billion), Malaysia ($1 to $2 billion), and Singapore ($400 million).

Malnutrition is a problem in China and India. But obesity has been on the rise. According to a New England Journal of Medicine study, the prevalence of male obesity in India almost quadrupled from 1980 to 2015. In China, where 110 million adults are obese, and that number could rise to 150 million by the year 2040, the prevalence of obesity has increased 15 times between 1980 and 2015.

In India, the loss of national income caused by heart disease, stroke and diabetes has increased seven-fold between 2005 and 2015. The statistics about children’s health are grim. In India, a quarter of urban youth starting middle school is obese, and 66% have a high risk of diabetes. China has the largest number of obese children in the world. There are many factors that could be contributing to this trend. These include lack of space for physical exercise, a preference for computer games among youth, and an increased focus on university entrance exams.

Taxing obesity

Many Asian governments are tackling obesity in different ways. The United States and Europe have introduced taxes on sugary drinks and soft drinks, Proponents argue that these beverages contribute to obesity because they add excess calories without adding nutritional value. Cook County (Chicago), Philadelphia, and other large local governments have implemented sugar taxes. San Francisco and Seattle will implement similar taxes by 2018.

Berkeley, California, with its high-income and highly educated residents, was the first city in America to introduce a tax on sugary beverages. This took place in November 2014. A study published in the journal PLOS Medicine found that sales of sugary drinks in Berkeley decreased by 10% in the first year after the tax. The city raised approximately US$1.4million in revenue. proceeds are used in part for child nutrition and community programs. Berkeley may be an exception, but the spirit of its approach – which includes the smart use revenue – could serve as a guide for Asian cities.

In Asia , the market for soda is growing rapidly.

Sugar fight

Malaysia, which is facing a national obesity epidemic, is looking at Mexico’s tax on sugary drinks as a possible model. Brunei implemented a tax on sugary drinks in April 2017, and the Philippines is currently debating a sugar-sweetened beverage excise tax. Thailand has imposed a tax on sugary beverages in September 2017. The tax will increase over the next six years.

Other Asian governments have shown a willingness to combat obesity. India instituted an annual obesity evaluation after a survey revealed that one-third of its army personnel were overweight. China’s army has also publicly raised concerns over sugar consumption by recruits.

In India’s Maharashtra western state, so-called junk food was banned in school canteens due to concerns over childhood obesity. Hong Kong is introducing a labeling system for pre-packaged food in schools.

Policy implications

It is unclear whether taxes on sugary beverages have a positive impact on health. Many cities in the world are considering or adopting such taxes. It is possible to be optimistic, as an Asian Development Bank study found that a 20% sugar-sweetened beverage tax was associated with a reduction of 3% in obesity and overweight prevalence. The greatest impact on young men living in rural areas.

In terms of policy research, it is important to gather information. For example, a href= “”> India’s nutrition atlas/a>, which offers a state-by-state comparison on varying public health indicators, including obesity. The first step is to gather information. India’s Nutrition Atlas is a good example. It offers state-by-state comparisons of general health indicators, including obesity.

A second concern with sugar taxes is socioeconomic equity. Taxes on cheap, unhealthy food can affect low-income groups. In 2011, Denmark implemented a comprehensive “fat tax,” which covered all products containing saturated fats. The tax was scrapped after only a year, and plans for a new sugar tax were also dropped due to consumer concerns. Another challenge is the limited control of policy. Consumers may choose to consume non-taxed products that contain high levels of sugar or find other ways to avoid taxes. Many Danish consumers simply crossed into Germany to buy cheaper products.

While focusing on simple tax solutions can be a quick way to score political points, it may risk sacrificing basic public health and developmental goals. In many Asian cities, for example, there may be no alternatives to sugary beverages due to the poor quality of tap water. Sugary beverage taxes must be complemented by broader initiatives to encourage healthier lifestyles. In a 2016 study on obesity in India, the authors argue that policy should take into account nuanced social-cultural factors rather than a “one size fits all” approach.

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