To improve people’s health in Kazakhstan, the government is considering a tax on sugary drinks (also known as SSB taxes or taxes on sugar-sweetened beverages). Although such taxes are already in place in over 65 countries around the world, discussion of this topic in Kazakhstan is complicated by common myths and many unanswered questions.
A recently published blog addresses some of these questions, while this Q&A aims to provide additional information.
1. Are taxes on sugary drinks really effective in lowering consumption of sugar?
Yes, evaluations of taxes on sugary drinks in a range of countries have consistently found people buy and consume fewer taxed drinks.
For example, in Mexico, research studies have found that people bought fewer sugary drinks after the introduction of a sugary drinks tax and instead bought more alternative drinks such as bottled water. Results published this year have given a further strong endorsement of taxes on sugary drinks. Research published in the British Medical Journal detailed the impacts of the United Kingdom’s sugary drinks tax one year after coming into effect, based on an analysis of over 31 million household purchases. The research found that the overall amount of sugary drinks bought by households did not change, however the sugar content in these drinks was about 30g lower per household per week, a 10% decrease.
After the publication of this study, researchers at the George Institute for Global Health wrote in an editorial, “These findings show that the UK’s sugar tax is working exactly as intended – and offer lessons for other countries exploring strategic regulatory options to promote healthier diets.”
2. Are taxes on sugary drinks recommended by international organizations?
Yes, a growing number of high-profile international organizations and research institutes around the world are recommending taxes on sugary drinks. The Pan-American Health Organization, World Obesity, the Obesity Policy Coalition, and the World Health Organization (WHO) all support the introduction of such taxes. An increasing number of professional associations of doctors are also recommending the introduction of taxes on sugary drinks, such as the American Medical Association and the Australian Medical Association.
In 2016, the WHO specifically identified taxation of sugary drinks as a priority policy for ending childhood obesity and tackling chronic or non-communicable diseases, such as heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and lung disease in two separate reports: Fiscal Policies for Diet and Prevention of Non-Communicable Diseases and the Final Report of the Commission on Ending Childhood Obesity.
In 2017, the WHO added sugary drinks taxes to its list of “best buys” and “good buys” for reducing obesity and non-communicable diseases. The WHO recommends these interventions as effective and cost-effective policies to encourage people to make healthier food choices.
3. Do taxes on sugary drinks interfere with freedom of choice?
No, taxes on sugary drinks do not interfere with freedom of choice. Consumers are still free to make any purchases of sugary drinks, without limits. Furthermore, taxes on sugary drinks can, in fact, expand consumer choice by encouraging manufacturers to reformulate and renovate products to include a wider range of lower sugar options.
It is important to remember that governments have a duty of care for their citizens and may discourage consumption of products that negatively impact livelihoods, such as cigarettes and alcohol, in a similar way to fire or road safety measures to better protect the population. Consumption of sugary drinks can lead to diseases such as diabetes and obesity, which place a significant burden on healthcare systems and economic productivity. The new Social health insurance fund in Kazakhstan guarantees access to health care for all citizens and acts in the interests of the whole population. Taking measures to encourage citizens to remain healthy is a priority for the government.
4. Isn’t consumption of sugary drinks in Kazakhstan much lower than in other countries?
While older people in Kazakhstan consume less than the global average of just over four servings of sugary drink per week, younger people in Kazakhstan actually consume more than the global average - around five servings per week for women and men aged 20 to 30 years. Studies carried out in 2016-2017 by the World Health Organization (WHO) Regional Office for Europe, the Kazakh Academy of Nutrition, the National Center of Public Health Policy and WHO Collaborating Centers, found that one in two school-aged children consume sugary drinks on a weekly basis.
This is extremely concerning as high sugar consumption is linked to diabetes, obesity, heart disease, teeth decay, and several types of cancer. Sugary drinks contribute significantly to sugar and energy intakes without adding any nutritional value. A tax on sugary drinks is relatively straightforward to implement and is one of the most cost-effective ways to reduce sugar consumption.
5. Will taxes on sugary drinks bring about a situation where imports from EAEU replace products made in Kazakhstan?
The tax will apply equally to both locally produced and imported beverages. There is no independent evidence of these taxes increasing imports at the expense of local production. There is, on the other hand, evidence of taxes on sugary drinks reducing imports and increasing production and consumption of locally-produced beverages, including bottled water. So, a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages may actually help local producers.
6. Wouldn’t voluntary targets to reduce sugar work just as well as taxes?
Voluntary targets have consistently been shown to be less effective than taxes on sugary drinks. A 2021 study in the UK showed that voluntary sugar reduction programs made very little progress until the introduction of a tax on sugary drinks. The speed at which sugar was being reduced in sugary drinks accelerated after the introduction of the tax, meaning such taxes can act as extra incentives for companies to reduce sugar content.
7. What research has been undertaken on the impact of a sugar-sweetened beverage tax in Kazakhstan?
The Global Nutrition Report 2018 estimates that more than one in two Kazakh adults are now overweight, with around one in five obese. This is more than double the regional average. Rates of obesity have worsened in both adults and children, with one in thirteen boys aged 5 to 19 years now obese compared to one in twenty-nine boys of the same age-group in 1999. One in five Kazakh men are obese compared to one in nine in 1999.
Given these alarming trends, the World Bank gathered evidence on the experiences of sugary drinks taxes around the world, and presented this information to the Kazakh government.
The Bank also researched the impact of a sugar-sweetened beverage tax on citizens with different incomes in Kazakhstan and found that when smaller medical expenses and greater productivity are taken into account, the poorest citizens will actually benefit the most from the introduction of such a tax.
In addition, the Bank estimated the impact of a tax on consumption of sugary drinks and generating new government revenue and provided these results to the government.
Taxes on sugary drinks can be a powerful tool for Kazakhstan to improve the lives of its citizens, limiting sugar intakes and decreasing chronic diseases like diabetes and heart disease, and ultimately helping build a healthier population.