SINGAPORE: Proposed regulations to cut sugar intake in Singapore should be extended across the industry and not just on pre-packaged sweetened drinks, said most participants at a public consultation session on Saturday (Jan 19).
This is to level the playing field, as well as to encourage more to offer a wider range of healthier options.
Saturday’s discussion was one of more than 10 such sessions that have been organised by the Ministry of Health (MOH) since it proposed four measures last month to curb sugar intake.
These include banning and taxing some pre-packaged sweetened drinks, tightening advertising regulations and implementing a mandatory nutrition label on such products.
Professor Teo Yik Ying, dean at the Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health, highlighted the seriousness of the problem, even as Singapore ramps up its fight against diabetes.
“Right now, Singapore has fluoridation in our water. But more than 50 per cent of our pre-schooling children suffer from dental cavities. This indicates that we have a major problem in our society around what we are feeding our children,” he said.
Prof Teo was among the 50 participants at the dialogue session, which was also attended by members of the public as well as representatives from the advertising and F&B industries.
One of the concerns raised was the sustainability of a proposed tax on pre-packaged sweetened drinks. Beverage companies, in particular, said the tax cannot be targeted only at particular sectors.
“It will simply shift the consumer to unregulated products like bubble tea, or those that are served fresh in coffee chains,” said deputy CEO of Pokka International Daniel Teo.
“If you look at the research carefully, 50 per cent of the cause of diabetes is attributed to sugars in food and processed food, so that's a huge other part that needs to be addressed.”
Instead of a tax, Mr Teo suggested that the Government reward businesses for producing healthier products as they cost more to manufacture.
He added that a tax may not be sustainable in the long run as consumers who already like sweetened drinks may not be deterred by price hikes.
“I used to be from the tobacco industry. There have been taxes on tobacco for 20 years but smoking has not come down, so I really don't think one single measure will work. I rather create rewards for people making a healthy choice. People love rewards, nobody likes punishments or a punitive approach,” said Mr Teo.
The idea of a tax was mooted to spur lifestyle changes, said Senior Minister of State for Health Edwin Tong.
“We want this fiscal measure to influence and shape this behaviour. We want this to shape the behavior of the market that's consuming it and also the behaviour of the manufacturers who are producing it.
“If we impose taxes, if we do take that step and end up collecting more tax, then I think something is not right. It means that people are willing to pay that tax to consume the same amount of sugar,” he said.
MAKE MORE HEALTHIER OPTIONS AVAILABLE
On the proposal of a ban on the sale of higher sugar pre-packaged drinks - which contain at least 5.5 teaspoons of sugar per 250ml serving – most participants agreed that it would be a draconian measure.
They noted that instead of limiting unhealthy choices, a wider range of healthier options should be made available.
The measure to implement mandatory nutrition labels received more support. MOH had proposed this move to help consumers make informed choices.
Student Muhammad Sufyan Juhari, who attended the dialogue, said: “Most of us have a certain diet and care about how much sugar we are consuming. So these nutrition labels are important. But it would be more effective to make it simple, clear and concise. Only then will we understand what we are putting into our body.”
Participants also supported the proposal to tighten advertising regulations across mass media channels by banning advertisements of unhealthy food and drinks to children.
However, most acknowledged that it may not produce significant impact as consumers are already aware of established brands.
They suggested instead to regulate alternative platforms like the online space and social media, where media consumption is steadily increasing.
“We do have to grapple with a new forum, a new medium and to find a way to reach out better, but we also don’t want to unfairly prejudice one aspect of advertising over another,” Mr Tong cautioned.
He added that there is no single silver bullet to curb sugar intake, and that the measures proposed have to be reinforced by a strong educational effort.
“If you're off sugar or a high sugar content for a while, your palate adjusts. We do want to inculcate that behavior from a young age, we want to shape it as far as possible and that I think that’s one such measure which will be sustainable. And education will underpin all these efforts as we move forward.”
Since public consultations started last December, MOH has reached out to about 3,000 people online and through dialogue sessions.