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Kenya’s obesity crisis: Can the sugar tax help?

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Kenya has seen an increase in obesity fueled by the consumption of processed foods with high sugar and fat content. FILE PHOTO | NMG

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Summary

  • Ministry of Health’s 2015 STEPwise revealed that 27 percent of Kenyans were either overweight or obese.
  • To control the rising burden of obesity and non-communicable diseases, the World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages.

Kenya has seen an increase in obesity fueled by the consumption of processed foods with high sugar and fat content.

Experts blame the rise of digital food apps and advertising, which have changed food consumption and purchasing. They say the food delivery apps and the increased misinformation of healthy family meals are some of the main threats facing the fight against obesity.

To control the rising burden of obesity and non-communicable diseases, the World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages.

Whereas the approach has been widely adopted in countries such as South Africa, Kenya is yet to implement a standalone sugar tax policy.

Experts say there will be a tangible impact when a country imposes direct taxes on beverages to reduce uptake in taming some of these health problems.

Kenya charges excise tax on all soft drinks at Sh10 per litre. It also charges Sh30 per kilogramme of imported sugar confectionery.

However, while these taxes increase the government’s revenue collection, they are yet to discourage the use of the sugar-flavoured foods.

“Government policies have an impact. A review of taxes and subsidies on food found that taxes on sugar-sweetened beverages ranged from five to 30 percent, and their imposition reduced consumption of these beverages by five to 48 percent,” the 2020 Food and Agriculture Organisation’s (FAO’s) Africa Regional Overview of Food Security and Nutrition report says.

“The review also found that subsidies could stimulate consumption of healthy foods, although in some cases this came with an increase in calorie consumption. This and other studies conclude that taxes on sugar-sweetened beverages and subsidies on healthy foods can influence dietary behaviour.”

The report recommends that additional actions should include public education discouraging consumption of such beverages, preventing media targeted at children from advertising, and bans in areas children frequent, such as schools and sports associations.

However, there are reasons the adoption of taxes, specifically targeting sugar-sweetened beverages is yet to be implemented in Kenya.

First, the lack of up-to-date data on sugary drink sales and consumption that could guide the decision and process of crafting a tax policy, according to research by Milka Wanjohi and Gershim Asiki published in the Conversation Africa that carries views from academia.

Others are lack information about sugary beverages and how they affect health. Government ministries sometimes hold opposing interests and lobby against sugary drinks taxation.

Currently, the government heavily discourages the use of tobacco products through taxation, meaning that there is a blueprint of how to levies as a health preservation mechanism.

Last month, the National Assembly Committee on Finance and National Planning rejected a bid to stop the annual adjustment for inflation on excise duty charged on 31 products including fuel, bottled water, juice and beer.

The MPs overruled the push to have the Kenya Revenue Authority (KRA) review the prices every two or three years, following proposals by soft drinks giant Coca-Cola and beer maker East African Breweries Limited.

The law demands that the KRA seek the approval of the Treasury Cabinet Secretary before making specific excise duty rate adjustments. After that, the legal notice is taken to Parliament for consideration.

Even when the sugar taxes are legislated successfully, they face legal challenges in courts as happened in New York and South Africa when they introduced such taxes.

According to the WHO, a lot is required to combat the ever-growing consumption of sugary foods.

The organisation noted that only 73 member States of the 194 impose taxes on sugar-sweetened beverages, although the definitions, type, and level of tax and range of products covered vary.

By 2015, a Ministry of Health’s 2015 STEPwise revealed that 27 percent of Kenyans were either overweight or obese with 38.5 percent being women and 17.5 percent men.