Sugar tax an option if "all else fails" in Hong Kong's fight against non-communicable disease

By Tingmin Koe

- Last updated on GMT

Heart disease accounted for 15% of deaths in Hong Kong in 2016. ©Getty Images
Heart disease accounted for 15% of deaths in Hong Kong in 2016. ©Getty Images
Authorities in Hong Kong have signalled that they would consider lobbying for punitive taxes on sugar and alcohol as a last resort to tackle rising cases of cancer, obesity and stroke.

It comes as a seven-year plan to curb the “increasing problem”​ of non-communicable diseases, announced Hong Kong’s department of health.

For a start, the authorities would work with industry players around product reformulation, strengthen treatment services for people with alcohol problems, conduct dialogue with the industry to supply healthier food, and conduct public education.

However, “if all this fails we may need to consider fiscal policies,”​ Constance Chan, director of health told South China Morning Post​.

This is a departure from the territory’s previous pro-business approach​. To stem health problems, the administration had all along preferred public education and dialogue with industry players, instead of following World Health Organisation guidelines that call for a sugar tax and further alcohol and tobacco duties.

However, Chan also highlighted that introducing taxes “is not a simple matter”​, and stressed that “improving members of the public’s health literacy will be of utmost importance.”

Non-communicable diseases such as cancer and heart disease accounted for more than half of all registered deaths in Hong Kong in 2016.

As of 2016, cancer remained the number one killer, accounting for 30% of all deaths, followed by heart disease at 15%. Stroke and diabetes resulted in 7% and 3% of deaths respectively.

Food labelling

To promote healthy eating, the Hong Kong authorities have introduced a voluntary food labelling scheme​.

The labels will indicate whether pre-packaged food is consider “low salt”, “no salt”, “low sugar” ​or “no sugar”.

The scheme was introduced last year, to assist consumers to identify low-salt and low-sugar products.

However, the labels were pasted on areas not easily noticed by consumers.

The authorities hence implemented a new “front of package” system with eye-catching labels officially launched last month.

The new labelling system covers 100 products and will remain voluntary, said Bernard Chan who chairs the Committee on Reduction of Salt and Sugar in Food.

He explained that it will take years for the mandatory labelling scheme to pass through the legislature.

Although the labelling scheme is voluntary, it will be an offence under existing laws to display them on products that are not eligible.

Four risk factors

The Department of Health said that there are four behavioural risk factors causing NCDs, namely unhealthy diet, physical inactivity, tobacco use and harmful use of alcohol.

For instance, as high as 86% of Hong Kong’s population aged 15 to 84 reported a salt intake exceeding the WHO-recommended limit of five grams a day, according to the findings of the Population Health Survey 2014/15 by the Department of Health.

The Department of Health said that it aims to achieve a 30% relative reduction in mean population daily intake of salt/sodium.

In terms of alcohol consumption, about 60% had consumed alcohol in the last 12 months.

Commenting on NCDs, Chan said that “at least a third of NCDs can be prevented through adopting a healthy lifestyles.”

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