The UAE’s tax on sugary fizzy drinks has helped reduce consumption among teenagers but experts are concerned the levy is only effective on lower income families who would be deterred by the higher costs.
In the first 15 months after the tax was introduced, in October 2017, sales of energy drinks in the UAE dropped by up to 65 per cent, according to market research organisation Euromonitor International.
Last week, the government expanded the tax to include a 50 per cent price hike on sweetened non-fizzy drinks.
Doctors and teachers have said they are encouraged by the addition but worry the tax is not deterring enough children.
"Just adding taxes will not help the children who are affluent," said Dr Farina Ghaznavi, a doctor at Repton School Dubai.
She said a holistic education programme to teach children and parents about the dangers associated with a high-sugar diet would be beneficial, adding that the tax was only affecting "a small minority".
A complete list of taxable products has yet to be released but Dr Ghaznavi said taxing bottled juices would help remedy the misconception that they are a healthy choice for children. While a standard 330ml can of Coca-Cola contains 39 grams of sugar, a 300ml of Tropicana orange juice contains 30g of sugar – however natural.
"People think that juices are healthy but even fresh juice can only be consumed in small quantities.”
She said many pupils brought juices to school while few pack a bottle of water.
"In the UAE there is a culture of nannies preparing lunches and they need to be educated so they know how many calories they are packing in a lunch box," said Dr Ghaznavi.
"I think the tax will have an impact in the UAE but we do have a percentage of affluent children for whom money is not an issue.”
Dr Anuradha Ajesh, a specialist paediatrician at Bareen International Hospital in Mohamed bin Zayed City, Abu Dhabi, agreed that the tax would be primarily affective on low-income families.
“If taxes are implemented, most parents will not spend the extra money on sugary drinks," she said.
Dr Ajesh said the taxation of non-fizzy sugary drinks would help show parents that drinks, such as bottled juices, actually contain a lot of sugar. Such drinks, she said, can make children feel full and stop them from eating properly and getting the nutrition they need.
"Parents should make sure children have fresh fruit juices or milkshakes made at home, not bottled juices,” Dr Ajesh said.
She referred to a 2001 US study at the Children's Hospital in Boston that found an association between the consumption of sugar-sweetened drinks and obesity in children.
She said a high intake of sugar can also lead to fatty liver disease, fat collection around organs and an increased risk of health problems.
Casey Cosgray, principal at Al Mizhar American Academy in Dubai, said it was too soon to measure the effect of the tax.
“Governments use taxes as a way to limit the use of unhealthy substances, such as sugary drinks and this strategy can limit use for those who are economically disadvantaged.
"It is hard for us to see the overall impact and it is our hope that through education from an earlier age and knowing the impact of sugars in the physical and mental health as well as sleep patterns, consumption will reduce," she said.
The teacher called on authorities to study the impact of advertising sugary drinks and consider a wider campaign to dissuade children from making poor health choices.
"Education starting in our early years programme and supported all the way through to grade 12 is the best path forward,” said Ms Cosgray.
The UAE introduced excise tax on energy drinks, fizzy drinks and cigarettes in October 2017. Cigarettes and energy drinks were hit with a 100 per cent tax while fizzy drinks had a 50 per cent levy added to their price.
Local health authorities have previously estimated that up to 40 per cent of children in the UAE are either overweight or obese.