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Cut diabetes, obesity down to size

19 February 2017 - 02:00 By Michael Bloomberg
Supporters of a proposed tax on sugary drinks gather outside parliament.
Supporters of a proposed tax on sugary drinks gather outside parliament.
Image: ESA ALEXANDER

A tax on sugary drinks will save lives and slash health costs. And it won’t lead to job losses, writes Michael Bloomberg

South Africa has a chance to help lead a growing global movement to adopt a national tax on sugary drinks, one of the leading causes of obesity around the world.

South Africans are among the top 10 consumers of soft drinks in the world, and it is no coincidence that the country now has the highest rate of obesity in sub-Saharan Africa, with obesity-related diseases such as heart disease and diabetes accounting for 43% of deaths in the country.

Obesity also imposes a steep economic cost. In 2010, diabetes alone cost South Africa between R11-billion and R20.5-billion in health costs.

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The burdens that obesity creates, on individuals and economies, are all the more tragic when you consider that obesity and obesity-related diseases can be largely prevented by implementing proven, cost-effective measures.

Even a modest sugary drinks tax has the effect of making healthier beverages - including milk and water - more attractive to consumers, especially young people.

France, Chile, Mauritius, the Dominican Republic and Mexico are among the nations that have adopted sugary drinks taxes.

Last year, six more US cities or counties adopted such taxes.

Now, South Africa can demonstrate strong leadership on this issue.

Mexico's sugary drinks tax helped reduce consumption significantly, and projections show that over 10 years, it will help prevent almost 200,000 cases of diabetes and 20,000 heart attacks and strokes, saving almost 19,000 lives.

Contrary to scaremongering from the beverage industry, there were no job losses in either the beverage or junk-food-manufacturing sector or in commercial stores selling food and beverages. Overall unemployment did not go up, either.

Like Mexico, South Africa's health and economy will benefit from the sugary drink tax and other efforts to improve diets, decrease obesity and reduce disease.

As the World Health Organisation's global ambassador for noncommunicable diseases (which include obesity), I've been supporting governments around the world to take actions to improve public health.

A sugary drink tax is one of the most effective actions that governments can take to fight obesity, and I applaud the many South Africans who are working to make it a reality.

Bloomberg is the WHO's global ambassador for noncommunicable diseases and a former mayor of New York

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