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Sugar tax reaps benefits in South Africa, study finds

Excessive consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages has been linked to a range of systemic non-communicable diseases. (Image: Marcos Mesa Sam Wordley/Shutterstock)
Brendan Day, Dental Tribune International

Brendan Day, Dental Tribune International

Fri. 30. April 2021


JOHANNESBURG, South Africa: In 2018, South Africa introduced a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs) based on their respective levels of sugar content with the aim of curbing their consumption. Three years later, a study analysing household purchases in the country found a reduction in the sugar and calories contained within SSBs in addition to a decreased volume of purchases.

According to the study authors, the sub-Saharan region of Africa is facing increased incidences of diet-related non-communicable diseases, including hypertension, cardiovascular disease and diabetes. This is being driven by “rapidly rising intakes of sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs) and other ultra-processed foods”. South Africa, in particular, suffers from an extremely high burden of these conditions.

To help combat this, the South African government announced its intention in 2016 to introduce a tax on each gram of sugar in SSBs beyond 4 g/100 ml. In April 2018, this tax came into effect—the first of its kind in sub-Saharan Africa.

Using Kantar Europanel data concerning monthly household purchases between January 2014 and March 2019, the research team found that the mean sugar consumption from taxable SSBs fell from 16.25 g per day per capita before the tax’s announcement to 14.26 g per day afterwards. Once the tax was formally introduced, this figure fell to 10.63 g of sugar from SSBs per day.

Prof. Karen Hofman, lead author of the study and director of the South African Medical Research Council/Wits Centre for Health Economics and Decision Science, told Dental Tribune that the success of this levy, along with similar initiatives in countries like Mexico and the UK, showed that it could “most certainly” be replicated in other regions.

“The US, for example, has taxes like this in place in many subnational jurisdictions such as cities and counties, and it is already making a difference there,” she noted. Hofman added that other measures, such as front-of-packaging sugar-content labelling and regulations banning the marketing of SSBs to children, could be complementary measures to help reduce excessive sugar intake further.

The study, titled “Changes in beverage purchases following the announcement and implementation of South Africa’s Health Promotion Levy: an observational study", was published online in the April 2021 issue of the Lancet Planet Health.

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