Editorial: Malta’s sweet tooth

Last Updated on Friday, 30 July, 2021 at 12:35 pm by Andre Camilleri

The Maltese have been ranked second in the list of EU nations that consume the most soft drinks, with only Belgians drinking more sugary beverages than us. This emerges from statistics published by Eurostat within the last week.

Based on information collected since 2019, Malta was only second to Belgium. The survey revealed how 9% of over-15s stated they drink soft drinks on a daily basis, whereas 6% consume soft drinks between 4 to 6 times a week. In addition, 9% take soft drinks between 1 to 3 times weekly.

 According to a separate study, in the UK, it found a 10% tax on sweet snacks could lead to a more significant overall reduction in sugar consumption than taxing soft drinks alone. Adding 10% to the price of chocolate, confectionery, cakes, and biscuits could lead to a drop in purchases of around 7%, researchers from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, the University of Cambridge and the University of Oxford have estimated. The figures are similar to those for taxing sugar-sweetened drinks, where previous research suggests a 10% price rise can reduce purchases by 6% to 8%.

On a local level, Sant (2009), in a UOM research study, found that a 20%  Sugar-sweetened beverage (SSB) tax in Malta would be expected to cause at least some weight loss in around 40% of the population. More importantly, it is expected to negatively impact the overweight and obese population by 2.7% and 2.9%, respectively. As a result, this would lead to a positive economic impact of between €2.7 and €3.7 million for 2015.

Yet simply sticking a sugar tax on these items isn’t the magic solution. Denmark’s so-called fat tax on foods high in saturated fats has been repealed by the Danish parliament only one year after being introduced. The controversial tax, designed to improve the health of Danes by discouraging consumption of fatty foods, was opposed by farmers and food companies and was unpopular among consumers. Companies complained that the tax was a bureaucratic nightmare, increasing administrative costs and putting jobs at risk, and consumers in Denmark were making shopping trips to Germany and Sweden to avoid the tax.

Danes are not afraid to buck the trend on health policy. For example, they introduced a tax on saturated fat, then got rid of it. They ditched a long-standing levy on sugary drinks when other countries were considering introducing one. And they even reduced the tax on beer. Yet, the Danes are often the go-to people for health campaigners in search of data.

Many producers of fizzy drinks in Europe have also taken steps to reduce sugar content by 10 per cent. But, for Malta, which imports around 80 per cent of the food, it’s challenging to tackle the problem alone without involving foreign food producers, so blanket rules for producers could be a potential issue here.

But one must tread carefully before introducing these “sin” taxes. First, more research is required on a local level. The next step is to make sure schools are sending a congruent message. Education here is key. That’s a good starting point, but with worrying statistics like this, we need more. And we certainly don’t want to pass the message that sugary drinks are okay.

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