Some years back I was invited to be the chief guest at the annual day function of a well-known public school in New Delhi. After the march past and the award distributions were over, I had to address the students. Instead of talking about the role models they need to follow or giving them a lecture on the moral attributes required to be a good citizen, I decided to focus my talk on junk foods. I asked them how many drink at least a Coke or Pepsi every day and almost all hands went up. When I asked them about burgers and pizzas, the response was the same. I wasn’t surprised for this is what I had anticipated.
I spent the next half an hour telling them how harmful the sugary drinks and junk foods were. The junk foods contain no nutrition but only empty calories. That is why most children were becoming obese, which eventually leads to lifestyle diseases like diabetes, heart disease and hypertension. I vividly recall that when I talked about the colas being an efficient toilet cleaner there was a loud applause. When I told them about how the sweet yoghurt for instance contains more sugar than ice-cream the children clapped. I concluded by asking them to educate their parents, their family members, and tell them why they should not be stocking their fridge with colas, and fried foods.
A week later, the Principal of the school called me. She told me of the huge response she had received for my talk, this time from the parents. Many parents had conveyed how their children had insisted on getting them away from junk foods and colas. She told me that the school administration too had decided to stop the sale of colas and junk foods in the school canteen.
So when Kerala’s Finance Minister, Thomas Issac, imposed 14.5 per cent tax on pizzas, burgers, and pastas served in branded restaurants, I was delighted. While the food industry, led by the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) has sought a review of the ‘fat tax’ saying it “would adversely affect growth of the quick service restaurant segment of the food industry and might set a similar trend for other segments as well’, I don’t think there is any need for Kerala government to even take notice of the industry’s representation. In my understanding, Thomas Issac should be complimented for a path-breaking decision and more importantly he has set a trend that I am sure will soon be followed by other States. One of the main reasons behind the rising sales of junk food is because they are cheaper.
Childhood obesity has now reached severe proportion globally. The United State’s National Centre for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) estimates more than 22 million children to be affected worldwide. Not only in children, obesity is also growing among the adults and that too at an alarming rate. Worldwide, 39 per cent of the adults are over-weight, of which 13 per cent are obese, and this is leading to the growth of lifestyle diseases like diabetes, cardio-vascular diseases and blood pressure. If we take diabetes alone, the World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates show 422 million people suffered from the disease in 2014. This is roughly 8.5 per cent of the global population. Of this, India also is home to 69 million diabetic patients, and the number is expected to swell to 100 million by 2030.
Denmark started the trend in 2011 by imposing a tax on foods that contained more than 2.3 per cent fat. Many countries have since introduced similar taxation measures with Mexico bringing in a ‘sugar tax’ on sugary drinks, and Hungry has a tax on foods that contained high levels of sugar and salt. In April this year, UK has imposed a sugar tax in a bid to curb growing obesity and diabetes. South Africa is also considering slapping a 20 per cent tax on sugary beverages.
Imposing additional taxes on sugary drinks and junk foods is certainly a welcome sign and should help discourage the consumption of junk foods. This should however not be taken as a stand-alone measure. Fat tax should be accompanied by consumer awareness campaigns. The US First Lady Michelle Obama perhaps sensed it early and soon after Barack Obama took over as President she launched a campaign on fighting junk food ads of sugary breakfast cereals, fast food and soft drinks aimed at school children. Five years after she launched a nationwide campaign called “Let’s Move!” the US Department of Agriculture had last year phased out junk food advertisements from vending machines in schools across the country. Even billboards of Coke and Pepsi were removed from school eateries. The big retail giant Walmart has promised to reduce salt content in its products by 25 per cent and sugar by 10 per cent.
Childhood obesity is known to a huge problem in America with obesity rates among those between 2 and 19 years being as high as 17 per cent. And it is here that Michelle Obama’s campaign is slowly making an impact. At least obesity levels in children between the age of 2 and 5 are coming down in America.
Although, India is reportedly planning to bring in a tax on sugary beverages and soft drinks but any such measure draws a loud protest from the TV channels, which more or less have an allegiance to a business house. With industry bodies like FICCI and CII jumping saying it will hit industrial growth the government normally goes on the back foot. But I see a possibility of a big national campaign, which will certainly leave behind a significant impact, if a campaign on the lines of popularizing yoga is undertaken by the Prime Minister Narendra Modi. He is already seeking the application of yoga for reducing diabetes and cracking down on the consumption of junk foods and sugary drinks in a Swasth Bharat campaign only makes it complete.
Kerala’s ‘fat tax’ has certainly woken up the nation to the need for stringent measures to control the growing threat of diabetes and other lifestyle diseases. I propose two action points: First, is to introduce a high level of tax on sugary drinks, including colas, and junk foods. This must be accompanied by a nationwide Swasth Bharat campaign, which should also aim at looking afresh at some of the policy decisions. For example, 100 per FDI in processing industry should not be allowed in foods which contain more salt and sugar. Breakfast cereals, like cornflakes and its variants, are more of a desert than healthy foods.
Kerala's Fat tax wakes up the nation, Deccan Herald, Aug 4, 2016
सेहत के लिए सही पहल Dainik Jagran, Aug 7, 2016.