Two of the most debated points arising out of this week’s Budget Debate have been the ten per cent excise tax on sweet drinks, better known as thirst quenchers, effective August 1 –– just two days before Grand Kadooment Morning; and the charges and countercharges in Parliament of wrongdoing by politicians in high places –– in governance and out.
Through all the talk of the great contribution that carbonated and other sugary drinks make to ill health and the rise in non-communicable diseases (NCDs), and consequent spiralling costs for treatment, we are offered no guarantee that Barbadians will be any better off for this new levy. At best, the tax will be a penalty for the sweet-toothed, who just might be persuaded to get on the wagon, as far as the sugar goes; at worst, merely more money out of the sweet drinker’s pockets into the coffers of Government.
Indicated by Minister of Finance Chris Sinckler, and supported by Minister of Health John Boyce, this subtly punitive tax is being hailed as an inspiration to Barbadians by the Government to take a healthier path towards what they consume day after day. Concerned as they were, Mr Sinckler said, members of Cabinet had determined that they should promote a healthier lifestyle as far as the eating and, especially, drinking habits of Barbadians went. And for it the Government expects to collect $10 million plus this fiscal year to boot.
The debate among ordinary Barbadians, of course, has been what it is the Minister of Finance was really hoping for: that our people would actually give up on all these sweet drinks and put the manufacturers in the red, or continue with their unhealthy drinking practices and help the Government finances towards the black –– $10 million worth? It would seem for the people to be a case of damned if you do and damned if you don’t.
This is not to suggest that Barbadians ought not to seriously consider the touted notion of eating and drinking more healthily –– whether advanced by politicians or not. But we cannot help wondering about the sincerity of the advice; about the “counsel” as a means of raising revenue through those who would not be converted.
Between now and October, thirst will be one of the most common feelings we will be experiencing, given the humid days and nights and the resultant dehydration by loss of water through our pores. The consequent increased concentration of salt in the blood will cry out for drink.
It is no secret the body will crave liquid with sugar, salt’s common enemy. The current Government’s alleged enemies of carbonated drinks, energy drinks and fruit juices will come to our rescue –– in some cases contrived repeatedly.
It is said the average American drinks nearly 60 gallons of soft drinks a year –– more soda than water every day. Naturally, soda production is a multibillion-dollar business, and it is said to account for a quarter of all drinks consumed in the United States.
Given that we in Barbados like to copy many of the consumer habits of Americans, it would not be surprising if our own consumption of sweet drinks each year was not itself almost as large.
It is thus crucial that we evaluate how all this sweet drinking affects our health. Researchers at Harvard University have quite recently linked sweet drinks positively to obesity. And as is commonly known, we rank high in the world when it comes to being overweight among our women.
We will not be tardy in stating that there is hardly a quicker and better way of quenching one’s thirst than by a glass, or two, or three of cold ordinary water, or coconut water. If we could all be so health-conscious and health-minded, it would be difficult for the Government to argue a case for an excise tax on our natural waters.
The other people-debated point is less eclectic, but almost as unsettling. We will not get into the details here of the charges hurled by the Opposition against Government members and the counter laid mostly by Cabinet ministers against the Opposition Leader especially. It cannot be said charges were never made in Parliament before, but it seemed when there were in the past, there was some foundation to them.
We make no attempt to pass any judgement on the verity of any of the charges on either side; we will only say the recriminations thereof are a stain on our Parliament and our governance –– surely in the eyes of those outside our state.
More importantly for us at home, though, the constant charges and countercharges from the mouths of our parliamentary representatives serve only to foment further cynicism, scepticism, doubt and distrust among those whom they serve and for whom they speak.
We yearn to hear more developmental recommendations and to be the recipients of more kept pledges of upliftment –– outside all this adversarial political posturing.
Maybe, now that the 2015 Budget fanfare is over, our parliamentarians –– on both sides –– can get back to the people’s business with a sense of positive purpose, informed by higher knowledge and values, and for worthier objectives.
And it need not take many moons!