An obesity and lifestyle medicine specialist has expressed support for the proposed tax on sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs), saying this will help reverse the incidence of high mortality and low labor productivity that afflict developing economies like the Philippines that are now experiencing the “nutrition transition” of altered food supplies and sedentary lifestyles that ultimately lead to slow economic progress.
“As a clinician and researcher, this bill is not anti-poor,” said Dr. Jan Paolo Dipasupil, a founding member of the Philippine College of Lifestyle Medicine.
Dipasupil said higher rates of obesity and its accompanying medical complications, such as diabetes, hypertension, osteoarthritis, stroke, coronary heart disease, and some forms of cancers among the poor, can lead to “lower productivity, higher absenteeism, higher incidence of people working while sick, higher mortality rates and a shrinking working class.”
These conditions will, in turn, result in “lower tax revenue, lower quality of life and ultimately slow progress of the economy,” he said.
Dipasupil commended the Department of Finance (DOF) for supporting the proposed SSB tax, which was originally proposed by Rep. Estrellita Suansing, as this will help address rising obesity rates in the country.
“Studies have shown that we are into ‘Nutrition Transition,’ which is a combination of altered food supply and sedentary lifestyle, particularly in developing countries,” Dipasupil explained.
He said that “due to the very competitive value of energy-dense or obesogenic diets such as sugar-sweetened beverages and junk foods, the burden of obesity shifts towards the group of lower socioeconomic status.”
A member of the American Obesity Society, Dipasupil said the soda tax bill in the United States, which is similar to the proposed SSB tax here, was implemented to raise revenues from a broad tax base and to help educate people on the effects of unhealthy food products.
The Manila-based Dipasupil is also a member of the American College of Lifestyle Medicine and the Philippine Association for the Study of Overweight and Obesity.
Suansing, the primary proponent of the SSB tax, has said that contrary to the misperception that her proposal will hurt poor families the most, her measure will actually protect them from the threat of serious ailments such as diabetes and “non-communicable diseases related to the excessive intake of sugar, including chronic disease, diet-related cancers, and chronic heart and cardiovascular diseases.”
Among the government agencies backing Suansing’s proposal are the Department of Health (DOH), National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA), Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Philippine Health Insurance Corp. (PhilHealth), and the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA).
Suansing has filed House Bill No. 292 that aims to impose an excise tax equivalent to P10 for every liter for beverages sweetened with local sugar, and P20 for those with high-fructose corn syrup or imported sugar.
Her proposal was among the 54 tax-related bills incorporated into the final version of House Bill 5636 or the proposed Tax Reform for Acceleration and Inclusion Act (TRAIN) that was approved by an overwhelming majority of the House of Representatives before the Congress’ sine die adjournment.
Suansing cited the results of the National Nutrition Survey conducted by the Food and Nutrition Research Institute showing that the prevalence of being overweight and obesity among Filipino children aged zero to five years old has significantly risen from one percent in 1989 to 5 percent in 2013.
She likewise noted that the prevalence of being overweight and obesity among children aged five to 10 years old has also risen from 5.8 percent in 1989 to 9.1 percent in 2013.
“What is even more striking in the 2014 FNRI National Nutrition Survey is the enormous increase in the number of obese Filipino adults, from 16.6 percent in 1993 to 31.1 percent in 2013. In absolute numbers, it is very sad to note that 3 out of every 10 Filipino adults are most likely obese,” she said.
In 2015, the government released some P7.4 billion in PhilHealth reimbursements to over one million patient-members for hemodialysis alone. Suansing said.
This amount included the PhilHealth funds released for other non-communicable diseases related to the excessive intake of sugar, she added.
Finance Undersecretary Karl Kendrick Chua has said that the SSB tax should be viewed mainly as a health measure that is meant to discourage the consumption of high-sugar beverages, while encouraging industry players to develop healthier product alternatives.
According to Chua, the DOF originally intended the SSB tax to form part of a separate health package, “which will be coming at a latter stage together with the sin taxes on alcohol and tobacco.”
Chua said SSBs are mostly empty calories that have no or little nutritional value but are relatively affordable and easily accessible, especially to children and the poor.
“Many people have said that this tax is anti-poor. But for a non-essential [food item], especially for a non-good, economic principle says that we should not use the regressivity argument at all. In fact, it is far more progressive over the whole spectrum if people’s consumption of these non-essentials and non-good are reduced so that they can consume the more important aspects,” Chua said.