Singapore may well become the first country in the world to ban the sale of packaged drinks with high sugar content.
This is one of the moves the Ministry of Health (MOH) is contemplating in its efforts to cut the high sugar intake of people here, as it is a major factor for obesity and diabetes.
The MOH and the Health Promotion Board are asking people for their views on four measures to cut sugar intake from drinks, which include 3-in-1 mixes, cordials, yogurt drinks, fruit juices and soda drinks.
The target is on drinks as they account for more than half the 12 teaspoons of sugar people here take each day. One in four sugar-sweetened beverages contains 5.5 teaspoons of sugar or more.
The four measures the MOH wants public feedback on are:
– Total ban on pre-packed high-sugar drinks
– Single or tiered tax on high-sugar drinks
– Mandatory front-of-pack labelling on sugar/nutrition content
– Ban on advertisements on all platforms for high-sugar drinks, including social media and on buses
Singapore already does not allow the sale of high-sugar drinks in schools and on government premises.
Many companies also refrain from advertising high-sugar drinks during the hours when children are more likely to be watching television.
There is also the Healthier Choice Symbol to identify healthier drinks. But this, too, is voluntary.
The public consultation is to gauge people’s reactions to pushing these boundaries further.
In a press statement, the MOH said that every 250ml of sugar-sweetened beverages daily raises a person’s risk of getting diabetes by 18 per cent to 26 per cent. This is from various studies, so the amount of sugar in the drink was not indicated.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) encourages people to take as little sugar as possible as “nutritionally, people do not need any sugar in their diet”.
It said reducing sugar intake to 25g a day would provide health benefits. This is equal to five teaspoons as measured in Singapore, but six teaspoons according to the WHO.
Experts The Straits Times spoke to all agreed that a total ban on high-sugar drinks would be the most effective, but also the least politically palatable measure.
Professor Teo Yik Ying, dean of the Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health, said the four measures are not mutually exclusive and together, are “very much in the right direction”. He added that any reduction in sugar intake will directly translate to health benefits.
Both he and Professor Eric Finkelstein of the Duke-NUS Medical School agree that packaged fruit juices, even those with no added sugar, should not be exempt.
Prof Finkelstein said sugar is sugar, adding that the narrower the tax, the less effective it is as people can still have other high-calorie drinks as substitutes.
Dr Kalpana Bhaskaran, a glycaemic expert from Temasek Polytechnic, said a 330ml can of soda and one of apple juice have about 36g of sugar each.
Ms Gladys Wong, a senior principal dietitian at the Khoo Teck Puat Hospital, thinks the suggested measures do not go far enough.
She said: “There must be a fair way to tax the freshly prepared beverage outlets, not just the pre-packaged drinks.”
Professor Rob van Dam, an epidemiologist at the Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health, said high sugar content in drinks adds calories but does not make people feel full, so it is worse than sugar in food.
He said a study in Mexico estimated that a 20 per cent reduction in sugar would reduce obesity by 12.5 per cent.
Being overweight or being obese are key risk factors for diabetes, heart attacks, stroke and some cancers, he added.
The public can give feedback at www.reach.gov.sg/sugarydrinks or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org from now till Jan 25 next year.