A widespread sugar tax is being called for to reduce consumption of the obesity-causing food and to increase awareness of its dangers.
Sugary soft drinks and caffeine-laden energy drinks are to be taxed in the UAE from October 1 and while doctors back that they see it as a first step to the ultimate goal of a more all-encompassing tax on all sugar products.
They say the effects of sugar are as deadly and costly to rectify as smoking and global health figures last week showed that diet is now responsible for one in five deaths, with obesity, which is in part caused by high sugar intake, the fastest-growing global risk.
“I support a sugar tax, not because it would directly reduce sugar consumption but because the revenue generated could be used to educate the population about the dangers of sugar,” said Dr Ayman Soliman, a bariatric surgeon at NMC Specialty Hospital, Abu Dhabi.
“Such health problems need to be addressed via multiple angles.
“The taxes might not be able to decrease the popularity of unhealthy foods and beverages, as they are so freely advertised, so any form of tax should be accompanied with restrictions preventing junk food companies advertising to consumers, especially to minors without warning messages.”
Although refined sugar is not solely responsible for weight gain, it is a key component in the growing numbers of obese children, and early onset of diabetes.
Cases of bariatric surgeries on obese patients at NMC Royal Hospital have soared in the past year. The hospital has conducted 432 procedures related to weight in the past 12 months, with some patients as young as 13.
Lifestyle-related type 2 diabetes is being reported in some children at just 10 years old at Burjeel Hospital, where the world’s former heaviest woman, Egyptian Eman Abd El Aty, who once weighed 500kg, is receiving treatment.
“Children have a sweet tooth, so want to drink fruit juices and fizzy drinks,” said Dr Anita Gupta, a clinical dietician at Burjeel.
“It makes them put on weight and we are seeing the impact of this with younger patients with type 2 diabetes, who are also overweight.
“It is not just sugar but the type of sugar that is important. We prefer them to have more complex sugars, such as wholegrains and carbohydrate foods that contain sugar, but in a different form.
“I’ve seen children aged just 10 with type 2 diabetes, which was likely lifestyle-related.”
After consulting with parents to assess levels of sugar consumption, Dr Gupta makes an assessment of what dietary changes are required.
The usual advice is to wean children off sweet products altogether, as merely replacing refined sugar in fizzy drinks and confectionary with honey and other naturally sweetened products does nothing to reduce their cravings.
“Our idea is to cut children off the craving for sweet things altogether,” Dr Gupta said.
Dr Kavita Karnik is director of nutrition and innovation at Tate and Lyle, an international company once renowned for its sugar products. The UK company sold its EU sugar refining operations in 2010, and now focuses on healthier alternatives.
“As long as you are getting more calories than you consume, you will eventually become obese,” she said. “Sugar is a root of those calories. We concentrate on obesity but dental caries is also a major issue in children.
“Dental extractions in children in the UK are skyrocketing. That is sometimes overlooked by communities when considering the effect of sugar.
“People should be aware of what they are eating and realise there are choices, with no real difference in taste.
“Providing more choice can help wean people off sugar consumption and break that addiction.”
The World Health Organisation is offering support for countries that want to impose a sugar tax on manufacturers of sugary drinks. According to WHO, if retail prices of soft drinks are raised by 20 per cent, there would be a decrease in consumption and, consequently, a boost in people’s health.
Excise tariffs of 50 per cent will be placed on sugary drinks across the UAE from October, at a time when the International Diabetes Federation says that about 20 per cent of the population now has diabetes.
The American Heart Association advises that the maximum amount of sugar men can consume in a day is 150 calories, while for women it is up to 100 calories.
“Excessive amounts of sugar can age the body on a cellular level, which can have both short-term and long-term effects on health,” said Dr Sarla Kumari, a diabetologist at Canadian Specialist Hospital, Dubai.
“The sugar tax may reduce the consumption of soft drinks to some extent, however education and awareness on healthy lifestyle and impact of high sugar intake is essential.”