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Tax could deter young, poor from unhealthy drinks - but would it work in Samoa?

A 20 per cent tax on sugary drinks would make young adults drink less of them, a global analysis has found.

The research concludes a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages (S.S.B’s) would reduce the amount young people drink, across a range of income levels.

But for higher income adults, a tax wouldn’t budge their behaviour, the report found. 

Local experts offered differing opinions on whether such a policy would change behaviour locally when asked by the Samoa Observer. 

Seve Malaetele Sefo is a senior nurse in the National Kidney Foundation of Samoa, and said she believes some Samoans would react positively to a 20 per cent tax increase.

“Samoans are very heath conscious now and very much into wellness programs and promoting healthy eating habits,” she said.

But for many, price will not affect what they eat and drink, Seve believes.

“People consume what they prefer regardless of prices, its people’s attitudes and habits and not what they can or cannot afford,” she said.

“[A] tax increase may be one way to deter the purchasing of sweet sugary drinks, but increasing prices won’t change people’s attitudes & habits.

“We have to keep educating, advocating and promoting making good healthy eating choices and healthy habits.”

But a higher tax could see more money in the health sector, especially for the educational and advocacy activities, Seve added.

Patients in the Kidney Foundation’s programmes for treatments like dialysis don’t talk about their consumption or spending with nurses but Seve said she has seen caregivers “give in” to their loved ones and buy them their favourite treats.

In Samoa, sugary drinks have been taxed at 52.5 sene per litre since last year, when the excise tax was increased three per cent from 51 sene. 

Under a 20 per cent tax, sugary drinks like juice, fizzy drinks and flavoured water would become more expensive.

A two tala soda would increase by 20 sene, while a litre of juice currently sold for $10.48 (before taxes) would now retail for $12.49, or an increase of about $1.50 to its current, after-tax price.

(The study found wealthier consumers' behaviour was less sensitive to price generally). 

The Chief Executive Officer of the Samoa Cancer Society, Shelley Burich, agreed prices would certainly factor into sugary drink consumption.

“When it is cheap and readily accessible it becomes the ‘first choice’ of product to use, not only for quenching your own thirst, but also as a cheaper beverage option for events and faalavelaves,” Ms. Burich said.

She said while patients don’t typically talk to the society about their diet or spending habits, consultations are a good opportunity to talk about healthy living like avoiding sugary drinks, but also fatty foods and tobacco.

But an excise tax alone cannot fix sugary drink consumption alone, Ms. Burich said:

“This type of tax, and increase, will be more likely to reduce consumption if there are other national policy options in place at the same time, such as banning S.S.B importation, restrictions on selling S.S.B’s at schools [and marketing restrictions particularly] to children.”

In 2016 the University of Canberra was hosted by the society and conducted a study on Samoa. 

They audited advertising of food and drinks on radio, billboards and newspapers, and found “discretionary food,” as in something without nutrients, were the most advertised across all mediums.

They also found that on the radio, the peak time for those discretionary food and drinks were between three and four in the afternoon, when children are out of school and are more likely to be listening to the radio, Ms. Burich said.

“The findings of this study provide a strong argument for the introduction of mandatory regulation to restrict discretionary food and beverage advertising on both of these advertising platforms,” said Ms. Burich.

The report found young men aged 20 were found to have the highest median intake of sugar globally, drinking 209 grams per day, and 20-year-old women consume 188 grams per day.

Men and women in their 80’s were drinking 75 per cent fewer sugary drinks than 20-year-olds, the report found.

More income means more purchasing power, which means the report found people responded less to price changes as their income got higher.

Young people especially were found to not change behaviour based on price, but people over 80 did.

“At lower income levels, elasticities were strongest (became more negative) at older ages; but at middle and higher income levels, there was less influence of age on elasticities. 

“The least responsive group were middle-aged adults, particularly in upper-middle and higher income deciles.”

Between young people 35 or young earning more or less money, the range of intake reduction was small, “for example, ranging from 16.8% in young men in the lowest income decile to 7.9% in the highest income decile.”

The report states just as higher income people were less responsive to price changes, lower income people were more responsive – as the authors expected.

“Potential reductions in median intake from a 20 per cent tax (price increase) were largest for the lowest income decile, ranging from 14.5 per cent to 24.1 per cent depending on age and sex.

The poorer older people aged 60 or older were estimated to be most influenced by sugar taxes, “suggesting a high price-responsiveness to such a luxury in poor nations globally. 

“Insignificant outcomes were mostly observed for middle-aged and older adults in middle and higher income deciles,” the report states. 

Globally, Latin America and the Caribbean countries had the highest median intake of sugary drinks, with men consuming 311 grams per day and women consuming 288 grams. 

That is almost four times the intake of sub-Saharan African countries and six times the intake of Asian countries, who have the lowest rates.

The report is titled ‘Global patterns in price elasticities of sugar-sweetened beverage intake and potential effectiveness of tax policy: a cross-sectional study of 164 countries by sex, age and global-income decile.'

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