A soda tax? What a sweet idea

A soda tax? What a sweet idea
By Zan Azlee

Recently, I was approached by an individual who works as a representative of tobacco companies to write articles in the media that would highlight the issue of illegal contrabands in the country that is causing the loss of their business profits.

Apparently, the smuggling and sales of illegal cigarettes is quite widespread because of the lack of enforcement, and because of this, the country is actually losing out in valuable tax revenue that they would have received if people just bought legal cigarettes.

The tobacco companies also blame the high sin tax that is being imposed on cigarettes, which is driving people to look for the black-market alternative. But opposing the sin tax would not be seen as favourable, so they attack the enforcement agencies.

The individual even made a case that all this loss in tax revenue could have been channelled to the country’s healthcare system so that those who actually do develop illnesses like cancer due to smoking can be treated properly. I just cannot fathom such a justification.

Of course, I would not even seriously consider writing anything that would actually condone cigarette smoking. I am one of the biggest anti-smoking campaigners and I am a big supporter of the sin tax. In fact, the higher the sin tax, the better.

I would also support stricter enforcement because it is true if cigarettes become more expensive, there is a high chance that smokers would turn to cheaper alternatives. However, I would add one more element to it and that is awareness.

There needs to be a bigger effort to educate and create awareness among Malaysians that cigarettes are bad for you and more importantly, create a society where smoking isn’t romanticised anymore.

People need to be taught that smoking isn’t a sign of coolness, sophistication or liberation. The romanticisation of smoking is a creation of tobacco companies to manipulate the people into wanting to smoke. And now that they are losing business, they want to whine and cry.

This leads me to what has been an interesting topic of discussion that has never been raised before, and that is the government’s mulling of implementing a soda tax. This was raised by Damansara MP Tony Pua, who is also the special officer for the finance minister.

Of course, the soda tax really came about because the government is thinking of different ways to cover the large shortfall in GST and also to offset the huge national debt. Putrajaya is expected to see a shortfall of RM21 billion in revenue after the abolition of GST.

But the soda tax is also a good move seeing that this could help to create a healthy lifestyle among Malaysians. If it is implemented, would there be a possibility that people would start consuming illegal soft drinks? Of course. So enforcement would have to play an important role as well. And just like smoking, there should be more effort in raising awareness.

‘Not cool’

I say we should also ban soft drink advertisements and sponsorship, just like how cigarette advertisements and endorsements are banned. We need to educate people that soft drinks are bad for you and it isn’t cool to ‘taste the feeling’.

Pua has come out to clarify that the soda tax suggestion is merely his suggestion and that at the end of the day, the government will decide on it. However, I don’t think it is a bad idea at all. Anything to promote a healthier lifestyle should be encouraged anyway.

Consumer groups such as the Consumer Association of Penang and the Federation of Malaysian Consumers Association have long called for a sugar tax to be implemented. They even suggested that soft drinks that reduce their sugar content to a certain level be exempted from the tax.

If we look at the statistics, Malaysia is far from a healthy society. It is estimated that 23 percent of Malaysia’s population (roughly nine million people) are smokers. That is a huge number. We are also one of Asia’s most obese countries with 45 percent of the population being overweight.

So this may just be the right time for something to be done before it becomes too late. Desperate times call for desperate measures. We need to welcome all efforts towards this, be it higher sin tax or stricter enforcement. But the most crucial is to provide proper education.

[This article was originally written for and published at Malaysiakini.com]

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