Sugar tax, a new policy idea which prescribes an increase in the price of foods with high sugar content, could be a measure to lessen demand from people with a sweet tooth, thus helping to reduce the problem of obesity and diabetes worldwide. It is not difficult to understand that the implementation of a new tax is almost unimaginable to many Hong Kong people.

The territory has long been enjoying a tax-friendly economy and customer-oriented system. As long as Hong Kong continues to value these conditions, it would be an uphill struggle for sugar tax to be introduced. Having said that, this proposal deserves our support because of the possible benefits it could bring to society.

Advocates of sugar tax stress the pressing need to reduce obesity. According to a McKinsey Global Institute report, about 30% of the world’s population is overweight or obese. This not only places a greater strain on a nation’s healthcare system, the economic cost associated with obesity also continues to rise. The problem of obesity does not only manifest itself in health issues for the person involved, it also affects their work ability, which in turn adversely impacts labour productivity and the economy.

It is important to note that the effects of high sugar products on society can be much more threatening than those of tobacco and alcohol as they also target young children. Many kids start consuming sugary foods and drinks on a regular basis in early childhood and as a consequence they face weight and health issues when they are grown-ups. High sugar products are often aggressively marketed by advertising agencies and food companies with the aim of increasing sales. Understandably, they would highlight the products’ so-called benefits and avoid mentioning any negative health effects.

To tackle the problem of obesity, the government should adopt measures to encourage people to change their eating habits by cutting out as much sugar from their diets as possible. However, there has long been a debate on how much government intervention there should be on merit goods and demerit goods. Education and healthcare products and services are generally regarded as prime examples of merit goods. As the free market may not by itself guarantee a sufficient amount, it is quite common for the government to adopt measures to ensure that all its citizens have a certain level of access to these merit goods. Typical examples of demerit goods are tobacco and alcohol. Many governments implement policies to limit access and deter usage in the belief that the whole society would benefit. Since the government takes the lead to encourage smokers to kick the habit, it should also take certain actions to encourage people to reduce consumption of sugary foods. Therefore, we should not casually write off the possibility of a sugar tax being introduced in Hong Kong.

Discussions about the introduction of sugar tax raise public awareness of the importance of maintaining a low sugar diet. It also reminds people to think twice before they purchase high sugar products such as chocolate and soft drinks. Parents should not indulge their kids by buying them junk food and desserts that are considered perennial favourites of children in order to prevent them from habitually consuming excessive sugar. Instead, they should read food labels carefully and make responsible choices. In fact, infants are not born to know what sugar tastes like. They often crave it after they have tried it. Therefore, parents should avoid keeping unhealthy food for children at home and help their children develop healthy eating habits. The government also needs to empower consumers to make good food purchasing decisions through clear food labeling that contains sufficient nutrition information.

To introduce this policy, it is necessary to consider both its desirability and feasibility. Though the existing political, economic and social conditions may not be favourable to the implementation of sugar tax, we should not ignore the rationale and benefits behind such a policy proposal. We should keep our minds open and consider other policies and measures that would help reduce people’s consumption of high sugar products.