Azrul Mohd Khalib, chief executive of the Galen Centre for Health and Social Policy said last month’s announcement by Deputy Prime Minister Dr Ahmad Zahid Hamidi of 13 health-related policies are indicative of the dire state of health of Malaysians.
One in two Malaysian adults are overweight or obese, and an estimated 20% of the population will have diabetes by 2020.
Azrul questioned if the government’s new policies are sufficient or if they will be effective.
In a statement on Monday, he said the proposed changes are “a mixed bag”.
He agreed that the early closure of eateries (also put forward by Prime Minister Najib Razak) is a step in the right direction.
“Studies show that when food is consumed late at night, glucose and insulin levels increase significantly, leading to weight gain and Type 2 diabetes,” he said.
“Encouraging fitness activities through tax exemptions, cheaper sports equipment and increasing the number of sports facilities will also help incentivise and promote adoption of lifelong healthy habits,” he added.
Disagreement on the Sugar Tax?
Nonetheless, he warned, “Introducing an excise tax on sugary drinks, should be considered carefully.”
He referred to the oft-quoted case of Mexico implementing a 10% soda tax in 2014. While the country experienced a decrease in sweetened beverage sales thereafter, he said that in other countries such as France, Hungary and Finland its effectiveness remains to be seen.
Azrul said that if the tax were to be imposed, the revenue should be directly channelled towards the subsidisation of fruits and vegetables as recommended by the World Health Organisation (WHO).
Apart from preventing overall food bills, particularly those of lower income households, from increasing, he stressed, “Influencing what people buy by making healthy food options more affordable to increase their consumption has been shown to be the most effective policy in reducing the number of overweight and obese people.”
Similarly, in a recently-released position paper by the Australian Medical Association (AMA), it stated that although many Australians have access to high-quality fresh foods “most do not consume these in the recommended amounts”.
AMA researchers suggested that a subsidy on fruits and vegetables together with a tax on sugary drinks could encourage the nation to eat healthier, and to save A$3.4bn.
The WHO has urged member governments to consider economic policies and measures that discourage the consumption of unhealthy food and drink options, in order to reduce obesity rates and related ailments.
More to be done beyond campaigns
Azrul highlighted the stark statistic that 15% of Malaysian schoolchildren are now obese, and said that education and awareness campaigns that have been around for decades “are clearly insufficient”.
“We need to ensure that our children actually have healthy school meals,” he said.
“We have to also go beyond guidelines and enforce healthy food standards in schools and hostels nationwide to improve the quality and nutrition of meals served to Malaysian schoolchildren.”
In June, NutraIngredients-Asia reported that the annual cost of obesity in Southeast Asia could rise to US$45b. The obesity rates of Malaysia from 2010 to 2014 increased by an alarming 27%.
Malaysia has the dubious honour of being “Asia’s fattest country”. In 2014, British health journal The Lancet, found Malaysia to have an obesity rate of more than 45.3%.
In 2015, a National Health and Morbidity Survey had similar findings — 47.7 % of the Malaysian population aged 18 and above were found to be overweight or obese.
So far, around the world, 26 countries have introduced a sugar tax to influence consumer behaviour and fight obesity and diabetes. Ireland, the UK, the Philippines, Estonia and South Africa have voiced strong intentions and could possibly join the group this year.