1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Sugar tax leaves a bitter taste

April 10, 2018

South Africa has joined the international trend of taxing sugary drinks to reduce high rates of diabetes, hypertension and obesity. But the long-anticipated measure recommended by the WHO was fraught with controversy.

A person drinks from a bottle of soda
Image: Colourbox

South Africa and Britain are the latest in a string of countries around the world to impose a soda surcharge, with Ireland, Canada and the Philippines among those expected to follow in due course.

Efforts to raise the tax on sugary drinks — by up to 50 per cent in some countries — have sparked standoffs between the beverage industry and the health lobby.  It was no different in South Africa.

The protracted debate in the run-up to the new law saw Coca Cola executives suggest taxes don't work in solving obesity.

However, Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi said the 11 percent surcharge levied on a can of soda since April 1 was long overdue.

"We are not banning sugar. We are just saying take them in moderate amounts. Every life minute of our existence we are being fed with these substances. It's an overload on the human body," Motsoaledi said.

The government said it was acting in the interests of the public in a country with a diabetes epidemic fueled by sugar and an overburdened health system.

High rates of diabetes in South Africa

Seven percent of South African adults, or some 3.85 million people, have diabetes. The chronic disease is a leading cause of kidney failure, cardiac arrest, strokes, leg amputation and blindness.

A key health survey has shown almost 70% of South African women and 13 percent of children are either overweight or obese.

The country ranks highest in sub-Saharan Africa on the global obesity scale but many of its neighbors are seen to be on a similar trajectory when it comes to the so-called lifestyle diseases such as type II diabetes.

Experts say the average South African is unaware that a can of a soda can contain nearly 10 teaspoons of sugar.

Close up of a woman using her diabetes test kit
A woman uses her diabetes test kit. The rates of diabetes in South Africa — and around the world — are on the riseImage: Colourbox/L. Dolgachov

Coca Cola warns of job losses

In the run-up to the implementation of the tax, soft drink manufactures such as Coca Cola declined to be drawn on the amount of sugar in their drinks but warned of the risk of huge job losses.

"That reduction affects people that supply us, not just with sugar. It could be cans, it could be packaging, it could be other raw materials. Those people will be affected together with the people that they employ," said Velaphi Ratshefola, Managing Director of Coca Cola Beverages South Africa (CCBSA).

CCBSA and the Beverage Association of South Africa (BevSA) spent nearly two years lobbying the government and are at loggerheads with civil society groups that supported the ban.

The government and leading civil society activists however brushed off their warnings over job losses and reported steps to mitigate excessive sugar intake as scare tactics meant to protect profits at the expense of lives.

At one stage BevSA said 72,000 jobs would be lost if the tax was introduced.

The government of Uganda recently discussed a three per cent reduction in the tax imposed on sodas to 10 per cent per liter. Its soda tax rate is the highest in East Africa, compared to Kenya with seven per cent and Tanzania five.

World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines state that nobody needs sugar in their diet and advises people to restrict the intake of free sugars to a maximum of 10 percent of their energy needs, or even half of that.

A 20 per cent tax on sugar results in a decline in sales and consumption of sugary drinks, the world body says.

Although nearly 30 countries have so far heeded the warnings and taxed sugar to boost public health.  Germany and Australia have shown little enthusiasm for the move

Should Germany tax sugar?