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BY Omei Bongos-Ikwue
Nigeria is facing a “silent epidemic”. Amid the din of more alluring health issues, non-communicable diseases (NCDs) like type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and cancer are making a steady entrance, accounting
for 29 percent of deaths in the country, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). The increased marketing and consumption of ultra-processed foods, including sugar-sweetened beverages (like soft
drinks), has fuelled the rising cases of NCDs. Each year, more than 38 million litres of soft drinks are sold in Nigeria, putting the country in the precarious position of the world’s 4th highest soft drink consumer, as
reported by Euromonitor.
Nigerians often opt for soft drinks over other alternatives because they are accessible and affordable
. Consuming one “soft drink” a day is a choice that lies within the means of the average Nigerian. However, the real costs of consuming soft drinks are not visible on supermarket price tags. The real costs emerge in the form of the health and economic burdens they impose. A 2010 study found that drinking one to two sugar-sweetened beverages a day increases the risk of developing type 2 diabetes by 26%. Like those found in soft drinks, liquid sugars are easily absorbed by the liver and can lead to high blood pressure and inflammation. Obesity, particularly abdominal obesity, is linked to consuming soft drinks and is a risk factor for many NCDs. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic emphasises the urgent need to address obesity. People with obesity are more likely to suffer complications from COVID-19 and face a greater risk of dying from the disease. Long associated with wealth and “good living”, obesity has now crossed the dividing line between rich and poor, putting everyone at risk of chronic illness. The only difference is that the urban poor lack the financial resources to manage these long-term diseases, unlike the wealthy.
It is no surprise that health advocates are calling for a tax on soft drinks. A tax can spare ordinary Nigerians the burdensome costs of treating lifelong illness. By discouraging soft drinks purchase and consumption, a tax will offer the most significant health gains to low-income Nigerians. Over 4 million Nigerians are living with diabetes; diabetes patients in Nigeria spend a staggering $4.5 billion each year on treatment.
According to the WHO, 22 percent of deaths among people aged 30 to 50 are due to NCDs. The years of productivity lost to premature NCD-related deaths is an economic blow that should sound a warning bell to the nation’s policymakers. Nigerians – policymakers and consumers alike – need to come to terms with the incalculable damage that soft drinks inflict on public health. The government should provide incentives to reduce consumption and encourage alternatives that will improve health.
The soft drink industry has always made improbable promises in its advertising, flashing misleading images to insinuate that every sip delivers “happiness”. Consequently, many Nigerians are oblivious to the harms of consuming one or more soft drinks a day. Even children get soft drinks in their daily lunch packs – a practice that paves the way to childhood obesity and leads young children to prefer their sugary taste
over plain water. Since 1993, under the interim national government of Ernest Shonekan, big industry players like Coca Cola have benefited from tax exemptions in Nigeria. Not many then were aware of the harmful effects of soft drinks like alcoholic beverages and tobacco products. Today, there is ample evidence to show that soft drinks are as dangerous. Far from being punitive, a tax would promote the public good that soft drinks companies profess to pursue. The application of this tax could provide tangible relief for the millions of Nigerians living with Type 2 diabetes and other NCDs.
The government has a shared responsibility to promote good health outcomes by formulating policies that protect society and create an environment where healthy choices win the day. Countries like Mexico and South Africa
have implemented healthy food policies that are leading people to spurn sugar-sweetened beverages and choose healthier options. Recent findings from South Africa, which implemented an 11% levy on sugar-sweetened beverages, indicate a reduction in consumption after implementing the levy. Policies like these engender healthy choices and subsequently slow down incidence rates of NCDs. A tax
on sugar-sweetened beverages can reduce soft drink consumption and result in better health outcomes while providing funds to relieve the NCD burden. It’s time for policies that promote healthier societies.
Omei Bongos-Ikwue is a public health professional with 11 years experience working on global health challenges with expertise in social and behavioural change communications and formative research for qualitative gathering. Omei has a Masters in Public Health from the George Washington University.
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