Fine Gael TD for Offaly, Marcella Corcoran Kennedy has been making the case for a sugar sweetened drinks tax to tackle the issue of obesity in Ireland.
"Reading and listening to recent media interventions by the Irish Beverage Council on the subject of the sugar sweetened drinks (SSDs) levy, one would think we did not have a very serious obesity problem in Ireland," she said.
"Unfortunately that is exactly what we have and the problem is not going away. In my role as Minister for Health Promotion this was one part of suite of proposals aimed at improving the health of our people," she added.
A recent World Health Organisation study forecasts that Ireland will top the overweight and obesity tables in the coming decade. "Childhood obesity in particular is something that we as legislators cannot ignore and indeed it would be irresponsible for us to do so."
"SSDs are empty calories and we need to discourage young people from developing unhealthy habits of consuming huge quantities of sugar and sugary drinks."
"We must face facts," the former Minister for Health Promotion said, going on to say that, "sugar sweetened drinks are part of the problem, despite the efforts of those who produce them and those who lobby on their behalf, to convince us otherwise."
Irish people consume an average of 83 Kcal per day from sugary drinks. The average amongst young people is 96 Kcal.
"This is far too high. Over consumption of SSDs is associated with a higher risk of overweight and obesity, chronic diseases and dental problems," Corcoran Kennedy insisted.
"Research shows us however that sugar sweetened drinks can also be part of the solution. A Health Impact Assessment concluded that an SSD levy would reduce the absolute level of obesity by 1.25%, that is approximately 10,000 less obese adults," Marcella explained.
"International evidence is very clear that fiscal policies (including taxes, levies and subsidies) impact on the consumption of targeted food, drink or product. We only have to look at the examples of other counties to see that the SSD levy can have a real and positive impact here in Ireland."
This type of tax has been introduced in three other European countries: Finland, France and Hungary, and it has also been introduced in Mexico. A Department of Health working paper published last year notes that the tax worked to reduce consumption of SSDs in these countries since their introduction.
One of the main criticisms of the SSD levy is that it would be regressive. "All taxes on consumption can be regressive in nature, Marcella stated. "However poorer people are affected more by chronic diseases like heart diseases, cancers, diabetes, mobility, mental health, dental disease and so on. The Mexican example shows us that consumption fell most in the lowest socio-economic group after the tax was introduced there."
"Now is the time for action here in Ireland to try and achieve similar results," she added.
The UK are due to introduce a soft-drinks industry levy from April 2018. Corcoran Kennedy agreed with the former Minister for Finance Michael Noonan who said in the Dáil last Budget Day, it makes sense to time the introduction of our SSD tax with that of the UK given the highly integrated production and supply chains which exist in the soft drinks industry between Ireland and the United Kingdom.
It’s interesting to note that the proposal to introduce an SSD tax was having an impact even before its introduction. Beverage companies are already modifying their products, introducing zero and low sugar alternatives, something noted by the Irish Beverage Council. This is a positive development and something to be welcomed, but only helps to prove the need for the SSD tax," she said.
Marcella went on to say that the introduction of an SSD levy will have "a wider positive impact" than simply reducing consumption of these drinks. The levy will provide a new source of revenue for public spending with the Department of Health estimating the value of the tax between €37.3 million and €134.2 million per annum. "I would like to see this money ring-fenced for the area of health," she said.
"I fully acknowledge that the proposed tax on SSDs cannot fully tackle Ireland’s obesity problem without a wider more holistic approach to tackle its causes. We know this from the wide consultation that took place in the lead up to the formulation of the levy. It is acknowledged in 'A Healthy Weight for Ireland', the Government’s Obesity Policy and Action Plan, 2016 – 2025, in which the SSD levy is listed as just one of 60 actions."
"It’s important to stress that the levy is seen as just one measure in the Department of Health's comprehensive plan to tackle obesity in Ireland. However it is a very significant step along the road to a healthier Ireland," Marcella concluded.
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