By Opeyemi Ibitoye
In a world where Non-Communicable Diseases (NCDs) like obesity and diabetes are on the increase, it has become essential to address the root causes of these health epidemics. One issue that has gained significant attention in Nigeria in recent years is the consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs) and their attendant health impacts.
As manufacturers of these products prioritise their profits over the wellness of the nation, it is crucial to dispel misleading information about SSBs, the efforts of the government to manage the looming disaster and the important work done by civil society groups and the public health community.
The detrimental effects of excessive SSB consumption are well-documented and draw global parallels with successful sugar-sweetened beverages tax implementations. This argument calls for an increase in such taxes to promote public health and well-being, particularly in the Nigerian context.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) has identified excessive consumption of sugary drinks as a major contributor to NCDs, which are particularly prevalent in low- and middle-income countries like Nigeria. SSBs are a significant source of added sugars, offering empty calories with little to no nutritional value.
High intake of these beverages has been linked to obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, dental problems and no fewer than 15 types of cancer. Alarmingly, studies have shown that children and adolescents in Nigeria are particularly vulnerable to the negative health effects of SSBs, making this a critical public health issue.
Countries that have implemented sugar-sweetened beverage taxes have witnessed positive outcomes in both health and fiscal terms.
For instance, Mexico saw a 7.6 percent reduction in SSB purchases in the first two years after implementing the tax, with an even more significant decline in lower-income households. Similarly, Berkeley, California, experienced a 21 percent decrease in SSBs consumption following the implementation of a local tax.
It is essential to stress that there is no valid argument to categorize unhealthy products as “staple food” for the general public in Nigeria. While we admit that this attempt is due to lack of stringent regulations that protect Nigerians from consuming unhealthy products that have now flooded the markets with misleading advertisements, the information disseminated by the sugary beverages manufacturers, their allies and other front groups primarily serves to bolster their profitability and funding of their expensive lifestyle at the detriment of the consumers’ wellbeing.
The revenue generated from these taxes can be reinvested in public health initiatives and subsidizing healthy food options. In the Nigerian context, this revenue can also help offset the economic burden of healthcare costs associated with diet-related diseases.
Sugary drink manufacturers often assert their innocence, claiming their products are just one part of a complex problem. They argue that consumer responsibility plays a significant role in health outcomes and that consumers should exercise moderation and make informed choices. They also argue against pro-health taxation, claiming that it unfairly targets lower-income individuals. However, evidence shows that lower-income populations will benefit the most from reduced SSB consumption due to the regressive nature of diet-related diseases.
As the advocacy for an immediate increase in Nigeria’s SSB tax continues, it is crucial for the industry to provide accurate information through publications. Obesity, diabetes, and other cardiovascular diseases are non-communicable diseases that can result from unhealthy diets, including excessive consumption of sugary drinks.
Providing clear nutritional labelling and increasing transparency about the sugar content in beverages can empower consumers in Nigeria to make informed choices.
Pro-health tax is a critical step in combating Nigeria’s NCD crisis worsened by excessive sugar consumption. A higher SSB tax rate that is effectively implemented and not absorbed by the producer will serve as a powerful tool in reducing the prevalence of diet-related diseases and ultimately improving the health of the Nigerian population.
It is time for manufacturers to be more responsible by limiting the incomplete and false messages they put in public while we also ask the government and all relevant agencies to sit up and protect the health of Nigerians.
Opeyemi, Programme Officer, Corporate Accountability and Public Participation Africa (CAPPA) and head of its Sugar-Sweetened Beverages (SSBs) Tax campaign, writes from Abuja