Time for the government to hear all voices on health

The SA Canegrowers Association called for the levy to be eliminated – claiming it costs the industry 16 000 jobs and about R2 billion, says the writer. Picture: Brian Lawless/Reuters

The SA Canegrowers Association called for the levy to be eliminated – claiming it costs the industry 16 000 jobs and about R2 billion, says the writer. Picture: Brian Lawless/Reuters

Published Nov 30, 2022


By Nzama Mbalati

Ongoing pressure from the sugar industry’s call to remove the Health Promotion Levy is a wake-up call for health activists that our hard-won victories need constant protection from industry interference.

Common industry interference tactics that the food and beverage industry uses to divert attention away from the role that unhealthy products play in contributing to ill health include lobbying government officials, influencing scientific research, and weaponising job losses.

Recently, the SA Canegrowers Association called for the levy to be eliminated – claiming it costs the industry 16 000 jobs and about R2 billion.

And, they said they would engage President Cyril Ramaphosa when he spoke to regional business leaders.

Their unfettered access to government illustrates how industry has been able to drive their agenda – even if it challenges access to health for all of South Africa.

Healthy Living Alliance (Heala) believes in food justice and that all South Africans should have equitable access to affordable food.

We know that this can be achieved through strengthening food policies that protect the public against unhealthy food environments and those that promote good health.

Strategies need to be created where both the public’s health and business benefit.

However, some big businesses have used their supremacy to influence their decisions trying to stop or delay taxes, better wages for workers and cheaper medication.

This includes utilising aggressive marketing tactics to increase the acceptability and availability of unhealthy foods, especially in low-income communities in developing countries.

Studies have shown that the closer people live to fast-food outlets, the more likely they are to develop diet-related diseases.

In addition, South Africans consume high amounts of sugary drinks.

Heala has found growing evidence that health taxes are the most cost-effective tool in controlling the consumption of unhealthy foods.

The postponement of increasing the healthy promotion levy (HPL) to 4.5% until 2023 is a clear indication of a disregard for South Africa’s impending health and economic costs, especially considering South Africa has a non-communicable disease epidemic.

In South Africa, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and several cancers are among the top 10 causes of death.

Furthermore, South Africa has a 26.2% adult obesity prevalence, a significant risk factor for the five non-communicable diseases (NCDs) namely heart disease, stroke, cancer, diabetes and chronic lung disease.

Heala welcomed Minister of Finance Enoch Godongwana’s planned increase to the HPL of 4.5% – raising the levy from 2.21 cents to 2.31 cents per gram of sugar for sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs) above the threshold of 4g of sugar per 100ml to take effect on 1 April 2022.

To our disappointment, the National Treasury postponed the increase to April 2023 to allow for broader consultations on the expansion of the HPL to include fruit juices and lower the 4g threshold of the levy.

The National Treasury did not give any explanations on why this postponement was necessary for consultations nor how the decision was made.

This lack of transparency and accountability is worrying especially with regard to a food policy that helps prevent unhealthy consumption of SSBs and protects the public against obesity and other life-threatening non-communicable diseases (NCDs).

The National Treasury must include efforts to raise the HPL to the intended 20% rate and sincerely begin the process of expansion to fruit juices and lowering the 4g threshold.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends adults and children reduce their daily intake of free sugars to 10% of their total energy intake.

WHO recommends a further reduction to below 5% or roughly 25g (6 teaspoons) per day would provide additional health benefits.

Increased transparency and accountability from the food and beverage industry would help people in South Africa make better choices and live healthier lives.

The introduction of front-of-package-labelling on South African food items would be a simple yet effective tool to inform the public about products that can harm health and help guide purchasing decisions.

An increase in the health promotion levy will go a long way to helping South Africa’s under-resourced health system support equitable access to health care.

Furthermore, guidance on front-of-package label requirements would be the first step in a long road to consumer-friendly policies that will help counter the industry’s influence on what we eat for a more food-just South Africa.

As Heala, we recognise that every job matters during these tough economic times. We also sympathise with industries such as rural cane growers in KwaZulu-Natal who have been dealt a heavy economic blow due to floods in the region.

But the cost of not having a health levy might be even higher: The cost of an unhealthy nation, rising non-communicable diseases and the preventable pressures on our health system must also be recognised.

We cannot allow industry to play with the lives of people in South Africa.

We must act today and give ordinary citizens as loud a voice as industry lobbyists in this fight for our health.

* Nzama Mbalati is the programmes manager at the Healthy Living Alliance (Heala).

** The views expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of Independent Media or IOL.