Apart from a tax on hamburgers, chips and other unhealthy foods, a South African obesity expert urges that these foods should be issued with health warnings on their labels.
Prof Tessa van der Merwe has been bombarded with critique during the past few days, ever since she suggested that energy-dense foods should be taxed. But this obesity expert still believes she's "on the right track".
Van der Merwe, who is head of the country’s first specialised centre for obesity in Pretoria, made the suggestion regarding the taxation of certain foods at the recent South African Gastroenterology Congress in Port Elizabeth.
Now, Van der Merwe also urges authorities to place health warnings on the packaging of unhealthy foods.
"This will certainly force people to sit up and take note," she told Health24, emphasising the important role that education could play in combating the country's obesity epidemic.
"At the moment, we're more or less at the same point where we were when we first implemented tax on cigarettes and alcohol," Van der Merwe says.
She explains that the co-morbid conditions associated with obesity are not only extremely dangerous, but are also costing the country millions – a lot more than the costs associated with conditions related to smoking and drinking.
"Initially, people also believed that smoking isn't dangerous. That perception has changed dramatically in recent years," Van der Merwe says. She believes that the same can – and will – be said about unhealthy foods, and its detrimental effects.
Obesity claims thousands of lives
One in two South African women and one in three South African men are overweight. That is 45% of the population – just 20% less than the world's fattest nation, the United States.
The co-morbid conditions associated with obesity include heart disease, hypertension and diabetes.
These diseases claim thousands of South African lives every year. In the year 2000, heart disease and diabetes accounted for 19% of total deaths in this country.
"From a health-economic perspective, it makes a lot of sense to address these conditions by implementing a tax on certain calorie-dense foods," Van der Merwe says.
When probed which foods would qualify for such a tax, the expert was vague, but did mention that very high-calorie foods, such as "double cheese burgers with French fries", could qualify.
Similar initiatives elsewhere
The concept of a so-called "snack" or "fat tax" isn't an entirely new idea. Similar initiatives have been examined in countries such as Britain and Australia.
In France, such a strategy has been implemented with success. Consumption of sweet alcoholic drinks dropped by 40% when French authorities decided to tax these products.
Van der Merwe is also not the first local expert to point to the benefits of such a system.
In a recent review by the Chronic Diseases of Lifestyle Unit and Burden of Disease Research Unit of the Medical Research Council, lead author Nelia Steyn and others recommend that a tax system could play a role in combating the country's obesity problem.
In this review, it is recommended that the government should introduce small levies on certain high-fat and high-sugar foods. "These could include items such as soft drinks and crisps," the authors write.
Government, NGOs should join forces
Van der Merwe urges the government to join forces with NGOs, such as the initiators of the "Health Robot", for example, to educate and warn consumers about the dangers of consuming energy-dense foods.
The proponents of the Health Robot aim to provide South African consumers with an easily understandable food labelling system. According to the robot system, unhealthy foods are labelled "red", while healthy foods are labelled "green". Foods that need to be consumed in moderate amounts are labelled "orange".
"I'm in favour of a more simplified version of food labelling," Van der Merwe says. "Then the government can start off by taxing the red-dotted foods."
Many people are of the opinion that the taxing of energy-dense foods would result in a raw deal for the poorer communities. But this just isn't true.
"Simply compare the cost of a banana with that of a chocolate and you'll see that this is a distorted perception," Van der Merwe says.
Healthier foods already subsidised
To a certain extent, healthier foods such as fruits, vegetables and bread are already subsidised by the government. The mere fact that the consumer doesn't pay VAT on these foods can be seen as a strategy to encourage them to eat more healthier products.
"But I think we could even go a step further," she says, referring to both the taxing of certain foods and the issuing of health warnings on labels.
She points out that, by taxing the unhealthy foods, more money would become available for the subsidising of healthy foods – and a positive cycle would be set in motion.
What's more, money would become available to feed those South African children who are sent to school every morning on an empty stomach, Van der Merwe says. – (Carine van Rooyen, Health24, August 2006)
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