UAE tax on sugar-filled drinks leads to diabetes drop, experts say

Clinics report fewer diabetes cases and a change in patient habits two years on from sugar levy's introduction

A move to heavily tax sugar-filled soft drinks has led to a fall in the number of new diabetes cases reported in Dubai, experts said.

Doctors at the Canadian Specialist Hospital have noted a drop in new type two diabetes diagnoses and reports from patients who are ditching fizzy drinks since the UAE's 'sin tax' was rolled out in 2017.

Although like-for-like figures were not available, doctors said there was a noticeable reduction in the number of patients requiring treatment for type two diabetes since the levy came into force.

The condition is often the effect of a diet high in sugar, fat and lack of exercise.

“Taxing sugary drinks was a great decision by the government to apply the brakes on serious lifestyle diseases,” said Dr Sarla Kumari, a specialist diabetologist at the Canadian Specialist Hospital, Dubai.

“We have seen a reduction in the number of type two diabetes cases and in the consumption of these sugary drinks in our patients."

A 50 per cent tax was applied to carbonated drinks high in sugar in October, 2017 in the UAE.

Since then, energy drinks sales have dropped by up to 65 per cent according to market analysts Euromonitor International.

“Since imposing taxes, we have observed people are keen to focus on better weight control and management,” said Dr Kumari.

“However, we need more campaigns to encourage people, especially millennials, to drastically reduce their consumption of fizzy beverages."

Diabetes has risen from the 11th most common cause of premature death in the Emirates in 2005, to seventh in 2016.

The government insists progress is being made, citing results from a national health survey.

A five-year National Health Survey of 9,400 Emiratis and residents, revealed in March by the Ministry of Health and Prevention found adult obesity decreased by about a quarter between 2010 and 2019.

Diabetes among adults also dropped by more than a third during the same period, according to government figures.

The sugar levy was recently expanded to include juices and non-carbonated drinks containing added sugar and sweeteners.

Doctors said expanding the national sin tax should oil the wheels of progress and continue to improve the nation’s health by curtailing obesity.

We have seen a reduction in the number of type two diabetes cases and in the consumption of these sugary drinks in our patients

“The major argument in favour of sin taxes is that by making something more expensive, it makes people think twice about buying these unhealthy products,” said Prasanth Manghat, chief executive of NMC Health, one of the nation’s largest healthcare providers.

“If that something is a sugary drink, or a chocolate bar for that matter, opting not to buy and consume it is a good thing.

“Taxing non-essential items might not completely close down the market, but if the objective is to force consumers to think twice about where to spend their money, that is being achieved.”

On average, a single can of a sugary drink contains around 40 grams of free sugars, equivalent to about 10 teaspoons of table sugar.

Over consumption is a major cause of obesity, diabetes and tooth decay.

A tax on sugar has been adopted in several nations worldwide, with promising results.

In 2014, one of the largest consuming nations, Mexico, added a 10 per cent tax on any non-alcoholic beverage with added sugar.

In the following year, research found a 7.6 per cent drop in the purchase of taxed sugary drinks, with more than US$2.6 billion (Dh9.5bn) raised in taxes in the first two years of taxation.

Some of that money was invested in water fountains in schools across Mexico.

A report on the effectiveness of a UK sin tax on sugar has matched that success.

In its second year report on UK measures reducing sugar intake, Public Health England said manufacturers have drastically changed their products.

Since April 2018, the UK market has been taxed according to the sugar-laden drinks they make or import under the Soft Drinks Industry Levy.

That has led to a 28 per cent sugar reduction per 100ml beverage.

A PHE report found consumers are now shifting towards zero or lower sugar products.

The levy and resulting consumer trend has encouraged manufacturers to remove 30,133 tonnes of sugar, without impacting soft drink sales.

The net gain for consumers is around 37.5 billion fewer kilocalories consumed annually in fizzy drinks in the UK.

“Our second year report shows some food categories reducing sugar faster than others but this is realistic at this early stage,” said Duncan Selbie, chief executive of PHE.

“We are confident that the industry as a whole understands its responsibility to step up and deliver for children and their families.”