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Tufton: Gov’t has not yet chosen path to sugary drink tax

Published:Friday | July 8, 2022 | 12:07 AMJudana Murphy/Gleaner Writer
Dr Christopher Tufton, minister of health and wellness.
Dr Christopher Tufton, minister of health and wellness.

Though the World Health Organization (WHO) has endorsed health taxes as a win-win policy for preventing disease, while advancing health equity and mobilising revenue, Jamaica is yet to introduce a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages.

Earlier this year, Barbados doubled its excise tax on sugary drinks to 20 per cent in an effort to tackle the growing burden of non-communicable diseases in the region.

“The Government, to date, has not chosen that path. I think we exist in a fluid environment. You would have seen some colleagues in the region introduce a sugar tax, for example. The approach to consumption that are likely to have long-term effects – particularly in our children, with sugary drinks being one such because of the prominence of that product in the schools – is being tackled on several fronts,” Health and Wellness Minister Dr Christopher Tufton told a Gleaner Editors’ Forum on Tuesday.

A 2019 Heart Foundation of Jamaica survey found that 81 per cent of Jamaicans would support a tax on sugary drinks if the proceeds were used to fund obesity-prevention programmes.

The 2016-2017 Jamaica Health and Lifestyle Survey revealed that one in three Jamaicans aged 15 years and older was hypertensive, one in eight had diabetes, and one in two persons was obese or overweight.

The minister was also asked if the Government intends to increase the tax levied on alcohol and tobacco products.

“As it relates to taxation, it is something that the Government would have to consider at the level of Cabinet … . Every country has to contextualise how they pursue policy to suit their particular circumstances. There are some of us who believe that the country is already overtaxed and we should be looking at reducing taxes. The alternative may be to look at other ways of doing it, but I think it’s an option that could be considered over time,” Tufton said.

Opposition Spokesman on Health Dr Morais Guy reasoned that the current Tobacco Control Act, which is before the joint select committee of Parliament, has the potential for a reduction in taxes.

“What countermeasures, in terms of financing for the National Health Fund, will be looked at?” he asked the minister.

Tufton said the loss of taxes is an argument that the tobacco company advances, but the Government’s view is that the net effect of reduction of consumption may result in revenue reduction, possibly a significant reduction of disease and, by extension, the cost to support the disease.

Opposition Senator Damion Crawford explained that it is important for Jamaicans to understand the objective of the sin tax.

He said there are some governments that consider it as a more palatable way of raising revenue and are often concerned if it causes demand to fall too quickly.

“Another school of thought is that the sin tax is to deter the action and, by extension, the higher the tax is, the more likely it deters … . The tax on the speeding has had a great revenue contribution and recently when the ticket rates couldn’t go up, we were seeing revenue falls that we had to hurry up and go to Parliament to correct the revenue fall, not that we were going to Parliament to reduce speeding,” Crawford said.

He argued that if it is unquestionable revenue generation for government wins, Jamaica will not see the tax being used for deterrence to the level that would make the health conversation sufficiently impactful.