The last Government’s controversial ten-per cent tax on sugary drinks seems to have turned off some Barbadians from buying as many sweet drinks as they did three years ago when it was implemented, a joint University of the West Indies-Cambridge University study has concluded.
Although it appears Barbadians are buying fewer sweet drinks and getting more bottled waters and non-sugar alternatives, sugary drink consumption here is still “three to four times” the global average, a team of researchers has said.
And the overall reduction is still not significant enough to suggest a meaningful dampening of the appetite for the beverages, linked to diabetes, obesity and other health problems, they suggested.
The research is co-authored by Professor Alafia Samuels, director of the George Alleyne Chronic Disease Research Centre of the UWI and Cambridge’s Mariam Alvarado, among other academics.
The study, titled Assessing the impact of the Barbados sugar-sweetened beverage tax on beverage sales: an observational study was published in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity.
It found that the sale of sugar-sweetened beverages declined 4.3 per cent within a year of the tax being implemented by Finance Minister Chris Sinckler during the Freundel Stuart administration.
“This price change reflected the manner in which the tax was designed and applied, namely on manufacturers’ and distributors’ cost, rather than on final retail cost”, the researchers said.
They found evidence to suggest that consumers may have changed their behaviour in response to the tax by purchasing cheaper sugary drinks, in addition to substituting with tax-exempt products.
The researchers said: “A policy that encourages consumers to substitute towards cheaper [soft drinks] may lead to an increase in sugar consumption in cases where cheaper [drinks] are associated with higher levels of sugar. On the other hand, if cheaper [drinks] are lower in sugar content, such as sugar-sweetened flavoured waters, overall sugar consumption may still be reduced.”
One hundred per cent juices, coconut water, unsweetened milk and powdered drinks are exempt from the tax.
A previous study revealed that the tax resulted in an increase in the price of sodas, juice drinks and energy/sport drinks by 5.9 per cent.
At the same time, this most recent study found that sales of non-sugary drinks had surged by 5.2 per cent.
Consumers also appear to be buying more water, with sales of the bottled water increasing 7.5 per cent, which the researchers concluded was encouraging from a health perspective.
When it imposed the tax in June 2015, Barbados became one of the first countries in world to do so.
This paved the way for other Caribbean countries to follow suit, though some have applied the tax at a higher rate.
In Bermuda, the tax is applied at 50 per cent.
Noting the ongoing challenge posed by non-communicable diseases, the researchers said there was still scope to reduce even further the sale and consumption of sugary drinks.
They point to a recommendation by the World Health Organization that such taxes be designed to increase prices by 20 per cent to have the most meaningful impact on health.
The prevalence of obesity among Barbadian adults 25 years and over stood at 33.8 per cent compared to a global prevalence of 12 per cent.
For diabetes, the prevalence was 18.7 per cent compared to 8.3 per cent global average.
Both children and adults were consuming very high levels of sugary drinks, with Barbadian adults drinking three to four times as many as the world average.
The group said: “The World Health Organization has advocated for sugar-sweetened beverage (SSB) taxes as part of a broader strategy to prevent obesity and non-communicable diseases, including Type 2 diabetes.
“Public education campaigns around the health risks of sugary drinks are important to support the tax and could be funded through revenue generated by the tax.”
Last month, Gates Scholar and PhD candidate Alvarado, presented research that indicated that 40 per cent of products are escaping the tax.
She recommended that the Government close loopholes by amending the definition of taxable goods to include a broader range of products such as powdered juices and other types of sugar-laden drinks like mauby syrup.