'Not a magic bullet': Industry concern as Singapore mulls sugar tax and complete ban on higher-sugar drinks

By Pearly Neo contact

- Last updated on GMT

The Ministry of Health Singapore (MOH) is considering multiple measures to reduce Singaporeans’ sugar intake from sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs), including the introduction of a sugar tax and a complete higher-sugar drinks ban. ©Getty Images
The Ministry of Health Singapore (MOH) is considering multiple measures to reduce Singaporeans’ sugar intake from sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs), including the introduction of a sugar tax and a complete higher-sugar drinks ban. ©Getty Images

Related tags: Singapore, sugar tax, SSBs

The Ministry of Health Singapore (MOH) is considering multiple measures to reduce Singaporeans' sugar intake from sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs), including the introduction of a sugar tax and a complete higher-sugar drinks ban.

If the latter comes to fruition, Singapore will be the first country in the world to implement such a measure.

MOH is currently seeking public opinion on these measures. According to a statement on its website, it is also considering mandatory front-of-pack nutrition labels and more stringent advertising regulations.

It added that Singaporeans consume 12 teaspoons of sugar daily on average, more than 50% of which comes from SSBs.

On the sugar tax, MOH cited other countries with SSB taxes like Thailand and the United Kingdom, saying that: Experiences in these jurisdictions show that excise duties are effective in spurring industry reformulation to reduce sugar content in drinks.

“The objective of [SSB tax], if introduced, is not for revenue generation, but to shape the behaviour of manufacturers and consumers."

“Duties on SSBs aim to encourage manufacturers to reformulate their products and to encourage consumers to choose healthier drinks that are lower in sugar content or drink plain water.”

However, this view has not received accord by the food and beverage industry.

Via a statement, Food Industry Asia (FIA) said that: “[There] should be a more collaborative multi-stakeholder approach, including the industry, to help solve some of these issues rather than present options like blanket bans or those that may be viewed as discriminatory in nature.”

FIA Executive Director Matthew Kovac added that ‘there is no magic bullet’​ to tackle chronic diseases, and that ‘many scientific studies have suggested [limited effectiveness] of sugar tax in limiting SSB consumption’​.

“The results in other countries that have implemented such taxes are still uncertain and we should not make decisions based on such ambiguity,”​ he added.

Coca-Cola Singapore concurred with this, saying to Channel News Asia​ that: “We believe there are more effective ways to address diabetes and obesity than taxes or advertising restrictions that only target beverages.

"[We're already taking steps to reduce sugar consumption], such as reducing the amount of sugar in many of our products, introducing more beverages with lower or no sugar, offering smaller packages, and providing more straightforward, accessible nutrition information."

The ban on higher-sugar packaged drinks has been met with equal trepidation. Higher-sugar SSBs are those that contain 5.5 teaspoons or more per 250ml serving.

If this comes into effect, many drinks including soft drinks, energy drinks, juices and yoghurt drinks will be affected.

Kovac said: “Consumption habits are hard to change and an outright ban on pre-packaged SSBs will not guarantee an overall fall in sugar intake as consumers may simply choose other foods that can satisfy their needs.

 “The prevention of NCDs goes beyond sugar reduction – it requires adopting a balanced diet and maintaining an active lifestyle. A more effective approach would be one that is coordinated across all levels, including steps such as nutrition and physical education.”

At present, Singapore already bans SSBs with over three teaspoons of sugar per 250ml serving on schools and government premises.

Sugar from other avenues

That said, the proposed sugar tax would only cover pre-packaged drinks, but not drinks that are made on the spot.

This means that freshly-made coffees, teas, bubble teas and the like would not be affected.

These drinks make up a large proportion of Singaporeans’ daily diets, much like the situation in Malaysia​, where Penang Institute Senior Analyst Dr Lim Chee Han previously told us that: “[Targeting] just soda drinks will probably not be sufficient.”

“If the government wants to reduce sugar intake among public, tackling just beverages is also futile without going to the main sweeteners and sweet food source.”

On labels and advertising

MOH is also looking to follow in the footsteps of Australia with a mandatory front-of pack label on packaged SSBs, saying that: “This will empower consumers to readily identify the range of less healthy SSBs ‒ those high in sugar and other nutrients such as saturated fats.”

“Overseas experience has also shown that adoption of such labels is slow and biased towards healthier products when implemented on a voluntary basis.”

However, Kovac voiced concerns about confusing consumers if too many labelling schemes are introduced.

“While grading and traffic light rating systems have gained momentum across other regions, it is important to ensure that we do not overwhelm consumers with multiple labelling schemes that might cause confusion,”​ he said.

As for higher-sugar SSB advertising, MOH said the World Health Organisation has concluded there is ‘unequivocal evidence that the marketing of unhealthy foods and SSBs promotes childhood obesity’,​ and that ‘studies show restricting advertisements can reduce consumption of the product of concern’​.

MOH is suggesting to make the current advertising restrictions surrounding less healthy SSBs mandatory or ban this advertising across all time-belts and mass media channels.

Kovac said that measures already underway, and ‘has been successful’​.

“Under the banner of FIA, a voluntary pledge on regulating advertising and marketing to children was taken by 14 leading international companies in Singapore,”​ he said.

“The Responsible Advertising to Children Pledge was the first of its kind in the country and has been successful, signalling strong commitment from the industry to promote healthier lifestyles.”

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