Science and your health

Sustainable Living: A “Samoosa Tax” to curb overconsumption?

Photo source: http://thewesterner.blogspot.com/2009/07/mcdonalds-hits-africa.html

The Seychelles, struggling with an increasingly overweight population, may want to take note of the latest move in Hungary to curb obesity. According to euractive.com, Hungary will be imposing a tax  on foodstuffs considered to be unhealthy. The plan is to impose a 10 forint (3.7 eurocent) tax on foodstuffs  that contain excess salt, sugar, or fat as well as a 10%, levy on soft drinks. http://www.euractiv.com/en/consumers/hungary-introduces-fat-tax-boost-nations-health-news-506505

The revenues will be worth up to 30 billion forint (111 million euro) and would pay for state-funded health care which has a deficit of about 100 billion forints (371 million euro). The bill will be submitted to parliament and in all likelihood will easily pass. Hungary would be the first country in the world to impose a “fat tax”. Can a similar tax, perhaps dubbed the “Samoosa Tax”, be considered in our country?

Expanding waistlines

According to the  World Health  Organization (WHO),  25% of our population is considered obese. This places Seychellois among the most obese populations on the planet. The prognosis is not good at all because WHO says that the majority of our population is overweight – a whopping 65%. We are presently the 25th most overweight nation in the world. In the next few years we may very well overtake other nations currently higher than us on the obesity listing if drastic measures are not taken.

The definitions of “overweight” and “obese” are based on an individual’s body mass index (BMI), which measures weight relative to height. Overweight is defined as having a BMI greater than or equal to 25 and obese is when the BMI greater than or equal to 30.

Fat equals sick

Research studies in Seychelles (and elsewhere) demonstrate that obesity is associated with a high incidence of diabetes Type 2. Generally in most populations the risks of getting some other non-communicable diseases as BMI increases are also high and include hypertension, disabling degenerative disease of the joints and some cancers.

And, it will get worse before it gets better because childhood obesity is already a big issue in this country. In general, childhood obesity is associated with a higher chance of obesity, premature death and disability in adulthood. Obese children may experience breathing difficulties, increased risk of fractures, hypertension, early markers of cardiovascular disease, and psychological effects.

Bad for business

There is another important fall out. Low productivity in the work place has been flagged as a barrier to moving the Seychelles’ economy to the next level. Overweight workers must be one of the root causes. Research conducted in the UK and elsewhere has shown that obese workers take more days off than those with normal BMI. But a recent study published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine reveals that obesity’s hidden costs stem from the fact that obese people tend to be less productive than normal-weight people while at work – simply accounting for the sick days they take misses a large part of the picture.

It costs a lot to be fat

The costs of managing health problems to do with obesity have not been calculated in Seychelles. In particular, the financial costs of workers’ obesity to companies and to the economy in general must be huge. Health care costs for obese employees in the US are 77% higher than those for employees of healthy weight. But loss of productivity due to obesity can cost a nation as much as medical expenditures for the condition – up to US$73.1 billion annually among full-time workers in the US.

At the end of the day scarce medical resources are being diverted to help people who consciously choose unhealthy diets. It is likely that our medical system would be more efficient and better equipped if it did not have to deal with all the health consequences of an overweight population. In fact, the minority which has a healthy lifestyle is being penalized as it also has to foot the tax bill for the overweight majority.

Triple bottom line

In the next 5 years,  if  trends continue, the number of  obese and overweight people will  no doubt increase in Seychelles. So, what can we do to change the situation over and above augmenting health education?  Disincentives to eating fatty foods could be introduced. The diets of overweight people usually contain excess fat, salt and sugars. It’s common to see people in our country gobbling samoosas, gato banan, gato piman and other assorted fatty foods, chased down with Coke or Sprite, even for breakfast. Has the time come for a fat tax – “The Samoosa Tax” – in Seychelles? It  could tackle the triple bottom line of overconsumption, productivity, and the national budget by curbing the first  and increasing the latter two.

Nirmal Jivan Shah

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