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As the world grapples with the bulging obesity epidemic and its consequences - as well as soft drink companies reducing the sizes of their products to tow the line with sugar reforms, all eyes are on law makers now as the debate heats up.

The Healthy Living Alliance (HEALA) said it was "excited" that the law introducing a tax on sugary drinks would soon be presented to the National Assembly for discussion and approval.

A decision for the Rates and Monetary Amounts and Amendment Revenue Laws Bill to proceed to the National Assembly was made by the Standing Committee on Finance yesterday.

The amendment bill provides in general terms for a Health Promotion Levy and a schedule to the bill specifies that this will take the form of a tax on sugary beverages. Treasury has stated that it plans to introduce the tax in April 2018.

“We are confident that members of parliament will put the health of the millions of people who elected them before the narrow interests of the beverage and sugar industries and pass the bill as it stands,” HEALA Coordinator Tracey Malawana said.

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Heart disease, diabetes, stroke and other obesity-related diseases account for about 55% of deaths in South Africa. Diabetes alone claimed more than 25 000 lives in 2015, according to Statistics SA, and some 10 000 new cases are diagnosed at public health facilities each month.

South Africans are among the top 10 consumers of soft drinks in the world and research has shown that drinking just one sugary fizzy drink a day increases the chances of being overweight by 27% for adults and 55% for children.

“People expect leadership and positive action from government when it comes to matters of health,” said Malawana. “We recently asked the research company Genesis Analytics to do a survey on public attitudes to the sugar tax and it showed that seven out of 10 South Africans supported the tax provided that the revenue was used for programmes to benefit the public.”

She called on parliamentarians to ensure that they had laid the statutory foundation for the Health Promotion Levy before going home for the festive season. 

“Many opinion leaders have complained that the sugary drinks tax is not enough to overcome the obesity epidemic – and we agree with you. It is only a start – but a critical, indispensable start. And we have more than a few ideas to share in future on additional policy measures to carry South Africa further along the road to better health.”

(Adapted from press release)