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New Labels And Tax To Tackle Thailand’s Junk Food Problems

Bangkok, Tue Feb 21 2017
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Since early this year, a person with leafy arms has begun appearing on food packaging to signify the difference between shameful midnight snacks and healthier fare.

With the obesity rate in Thailand now at nearly one-in-three adults, public health policy is taking a two-prong approach to the sugary drinks and salty snacks seen as the problem - Label acceptable products and tax those that aren’t.

“The rapidly increasing level of obesity due to sugar and sodium consumption is worrying. If not taken care of, the problem will be such a strain on primary health care that the government could go bankrupt,” said Visith Chavasit of Mahidol University’s Institute of Nutrition.

The labels – humanoid figures with leafy bodies – is part of the Healthier Choice program, which began a year ago but only officially launched Aug. 31 with only 20 products, a number that grows every day.

“The program got off to a slow start because we had to approve food companies and wait for them to change their packaging. Now we can see more products in the market, and have more public awareness about this educational tool,” said Wantanee Kringsinyos of the Institute of Nutrition of Mahidol University.

Nationwide, excessive consumption of salt and sugar from street and processed foods combined with increasingly sedentary lifestyles have driven obesity levels to an alarming 10 percent of children and about 30 percent of adults, Visith said. With it comes an increase in associated health problems hitting people at younger ages, such as heart disease and diabetes. Thailand has the highest rate of death from such noncommunicable diseases in ASEAN – 0.6 percent compared to a regional average of 0.4 percent.

Apart from dangling low sodium carrots, the other approach involves prodding people to eat better with a sugar tax. According to the Thai Health Promotion Foundation, a 500ml bottle of Oishi Honey Lemon Green Tea contains 54.5 grams of sugar, slightly more per volume than Coca Cola. That’s three days worth of the amount of sugar recommended for consumption and more than double to 20 gram maximum recommended by the foundation.

Last year in May, the junta’s reform steering assembly approved a tax that will mean higher prices for things like Oishi, Ichitan and other sweet drinks. Drinks with more than six to 10 grams of sugar will be taxed by 20 percent, and super-sweet beverages with over 10 grams of sugar will be taxed 25 percent.

“The sugar tax will be signed soon by the cabinet, but that doesn’t mean it will be implemented immediately. There will be a grace period of two years to allow the commercial sector to adjust their products,” said Nonarit Bisyonyabut, a think tank economist with the Thai Development Research Institute.

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