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Sugar tax ‘misses the point’

Diabetes expert: David Cavan (Photograph by Akil Simmons)

A diabetes expert called on the Government to ensure water and diet drinks are cheaper than sugary sodas and argued that the controversial sugar tax “completely missed the point”.

David Cavan, a British-based doctor, questioned whether the island’s sugar tax had worked nine months after the legislation was introduced.

The endocrinologist, who has worked on a programme to halt Type 2 diabetes in Bermuda, said he had shopped around the island and found diet sodas on sale for the same price as the sugar-laden drinks branded a top cause of the disease.

He added: “I buy diet drinks, so I was absolutely amazed to discover their costs were the same as the sugar variety.

“It has completely missed the point of what the sugar tax was meant to achieve.”

Dr Cavan said: “My advice to policymakers is that the whole point of the sugar tax should be to make it more expensive than alternatives and to deter people from buying sugary drinks.

“That means there should be an obligation on retailers to ensure water and diet drinks are cheaper than sugary drinks.”

Dr Cavan said he was pleased when the sugar tax, designed to target selected products with a 50 per cent tax hike, was introduced last October.

The extra duty rose to 75 per cent at the start of April and its scope widened to include chocolate items.

However, Dr Cavan said he had noticed diet drinks — which were exempted from the tax — were priced the same as sugary equivalents at several places around the island.

A sedentary lifestyle can lead to Type 2 diabetes, which constitutes the bulk of the disease, and can lead to cardiovascular disease and lower-limb amputations.

The Bermuda Diabetes Association said the tax on high-sugar drinks, one of the top contributors to diabetes rates, was “a step in the right direction” after the Government pledged in 2017 to begin consultation on higher prices for unhealthy foods and drinks.

Dr Cavan, who worked with Stanley James of Premier Health and Wellness on a diabetes treatment programme, said it had resulted in a 15 per cent success rate in patients reversing their diabetes after a year of lifestyle change.

He added that more victims of the disease should sign up.

Dr Cavan said: “As of now, we have 12 people in diabetes remission out of the 77 who completed the whole year.

“It’s fantastic, but we have to be careful. The word ‘remission’ can be equated to a cure. But the diabetes will come back if you don’t follow the programme. This has to be a permanent change.”

The programme, developed in February 2017, set up a six-week diet and lifestyle change course with reviews every month for the next year.

Dr Cavan said he had cut back on his sugar consumption eight years ago and found the treats he once enjoyed had become “sickly sweet”.

He explained: “Your tastes can adapt. Over time, you don’t want the same things any more.”

Dr Cavan added that helping patients take control of their own health cut medication costs by about $500 per person.

He said the improvements also meant “healthier people at less risk of developing problems like kidney failure, blindness and amputations”.

However, Dr Cavan highlighted that sugar was not the only cause of diabetes.

He said: “I know Bermudians love their mac and cheese, rice and peas, and fried fish. But a huge number of people are drinking two or three sodas a day.”

Dr Cavan added: “The reason why reducing sugary soda is so important is that it has been identified as the single most effective intervention to prevent new cases of Type 2 diabetes.”

A spokeswoman for the Ministry of Health said that imports of sugary products were showing “early signs of decline, which we are monitoring to see the longer-term impact”.

She added: “The sugar tax excludes diet drinks and there are more non-sugary options on the market today, which encourages consumers to choose these alternatives.

“There isn’t a single solution that will change everyone’s behaviour and the ministry is committed to a multipronged approach.”

She said the Government had used “a variety of levers to shift behaviours and improve the health of the population”.

She added: “This includes public education, disease management and healthier environments. The evidence reviewed found sugar taxes to be a positive contributor to reducing sugar consumption in other jurisdictions.”