By Kareem Smith
One of the Caribbean’s largest nonalcoholic beverage manufacturers is proposing a tiered tax system to replace the “disproportionate” and blanketed 20 per cent tax on sugar-sweetened beverages imposed at the start of the month.
Director of SM Jaleel Beverages Barbados Dr. Mikaeel Mohammed, whose company reduced the sugar content in its beverages by more than 50 per cent over the last five years, is disappointed that the ‘sweet drink’ levy has painted the entire sector with the same proverbial brush.
“So the Busta, the Classic [Kola] and the chubby that you drink now or that you see on the shelves is in fact 50 per cent less sugar than it was five years ago and it is still selling, people still like it and so this is why I am saying there is no need to have such high sugar contents,” Dr Mohammed told Barbados TODAY.
“If we were able, understanding the global impact of NCDs and obesity, to reduce our sugar content by 50 percent and people still like the taste and still drink it, then everyone can do it. It is possible,” he added.
The Trinidadian company, which manufactures household names like Fruta, Busta, Chubby, Turbo Energy Drink, Trinidad Juices, Viva water and Oasis Water, has been aggressively marketing Kure Oxygenated Water on the local market.
In an extended interview, Mohammed said he fully supported the fight against noncommunicable diseases and obesity. But he contended that products like flavoured milk, natural juices, and sparkling waters with under 10 grams of sugar should not be placed in the same category as more heavily-sweetened beverages.
“You don’t need to put the same tax on a product that has 68 grams of sugar on a product that has one gram of sugar,” Dr Mohammed contended.
“With the utmost respect for those involved, I don’t think that is very logical. We want to get people to drink products that are under 22.5 grams of sugar and of course the lower the better and really and truly it is not necessary for people to drink products and carbonated soft drinks, such as those that have 58 grams of sugar or 63 grams of sugar. That is almost a quarter of the bottle that is full of sugar. You don’t need that.
“What I have urged them to consider is a tiered tax system so that those that have the highest sugar content are disproportionately affected compared to products that have maybe one gram of sugar that is simply for taste profile,” said Mohammed.
The businessman said his company was so committed to the wellbeing of consumers, that it adopted the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) recommendations for beverage nutrition capping 80 per cent of their products below 22.5 grams of added sugar per 250ml.
Dr Mohammed, a medical doctor, was part of the Barbados Beverage Coalition, which up until Friday when the tax was raised from 10 to 20 per cent, beseeched the government to reconsider its position.
Hours before the implementation of the measure, Prime Minister Mia Mottley declared that it would be “an act of treason” not to insist on reducing the country’s reliance on sugar. Barbados TODAY understands that a meeting with Minister of Health and Wellness Ian Gooding-Edgehill last Friday yielded very little progress for the beverage coalition.
Dr Mohammed reiterated a previous point about incentives for producers of low-sugar beverages which would help to remove the perception that healthier options are inherently more expensive.
He added that if the government simultaneously increases the taxes on products above the 22.5 grams per 250ml WHO benchmark, the government could still meet its revenue targets.
The businessman further contended that it was both disproportionate and inequitable to single out sweet drink manufacturers who represent less than 10 per cent of added sugar consumption.
“Before you go from 10 per cent to 20 per cent in one sub-sector you should go to 10 per cent in other areas of food, because a child can suck as many lollipops and candy and sweets as they want, eat as many ice creams as they want during the day, but we are telling them soft drinks are bad or juices with added sugar are bad or sparkling water with added sugar is bad,” argued Mohammed.
“I understand there are extremes to every circumstance, such as soft drinks that have 53 or 68 grams of sugar. That is an extreme, but this tax also has the same level of taxation to something that just has one gram of sugar added. I don’t think that’s equitable. Something that has one gram of sugar should not be treated in the same way as something that has 68 grams of sugar,” he added.
The SM Jaleel director said based on statistics collected when the 10 per cent ‘sugar’ tax was introduced, the measure would have very little impact on consumer behaviour.
Dr Mohammed said he has been instead reaching out to the ministries of education and health about introducing education programmes in schools on the benefits of healthy living.