MPs back sugar tax but want to follow up on health impact
An amended version of a proposed tax on sugar won cross-party support in the House of Assembly yesterday.
But Opposition MPs questioned if an extra charge on sugar-laden products would drive people to make healthier choices.
Susan Jackson, the shadow health minister, said there should be a “war on sugar” as she gave Opposition support of the Customs Tariff Amendment (No 2) Act in a debate that lasted more than five hours.
She said: “If we could just get this right and become more healthy, then we have an opportunity to reflect to the entire world that we can recover and be an example for those also trying to become more healthy, that it is possible.”
Ms Jackson said manufacturers invested large sums in “keeping us addicted”.
She also suggested that sugary items should not be distributed in some public places, like “pivotal” restrictions on tobacco had cut down on its consumption.
Ms Jackson said the removal of candy from supermarket checkouts could also be considered.
She also called for a committee or council to “follow the data” and track whether the legislation improved health.
Jeanne Atherden, the Leader of the Opposition, also called for measures to be put in place so that the results could be tracked.
She also repeated concerns she said she had as a former health minister that a tax on sugar would only lead to increased revenue instead of changed behaviour.
Ms Atherden warned that an “increase in cost does not automatically decrease consumption”.
Craig Cannonier of the Opposition One Bermuda Alliance welcomed the amendments brought by health minister Kim Wilson, which he said would help save black and Portuguese businesses.
Mr Cannonier told MPs “that the Bermudian diet is killing us” and asked for a “massive” commitment to health education.
He added: “We cannot legislate behaviour but what we can do is educate, educate, educate.”
David Burt, the Premier and Finance Minister, repeated that the Government would “ensure that we earmark all of the funds that are generated from the sugar tax to the promotion of healthy living initiatives”.
He added: “The best way to do that is to lower the cost of healthy options and that is what we need to make sure we are trying to target.”
Mr Burt said: “We have taken a first step into that to eliminate customs duty on many healthy food items.”
He added that another option was to encourage more local production of healthy options.
He said the Business Development Agency and an external investor were looking at the “conversion of certain buildings at Southside which could be possibly used for vertical farming”.
Mr Burt also acknowledged concerns of businesses who felt that the sudden duty rate increase would put them out of business.
He said the Government had agreed to delay the implementation, phase the increase and also offer concessions to local manufacturers.
But Mr Burt also suggested that they take the opportunity to take the time to reinvent what they do.
He said: “If you have a retail store that is just selling candy, maybe in addition to selling candy, you might want to sell healthier snacks, different options, fruit-based snacks.”
Lawrence Scott, the Government whip, said businesses such as soft drinks producer Barritts, which had opposed the tax, should see it as an opportunity to create jobs.
“As it says in the bill, there is a concession for foodstuffs made here in Bermuda, produced here in Bermuda.”
He added that if Barritts were to bring its bottling operation back to the island “they would then be able to say that we are actually producing it here in Bermuda”.
Mr Scott said this would mean they could apply then for the concession.
But Patricia Gordon-Pamplin said simply relocating the manufacturing side would defeat the purpose of the bill.
She said: “It is the consumption, not the place of manufacture, that is causing the health problems to which the minister has referred.”
Ms Gordon-Pamplin also stressed the need to recognise the addictiveness of sugar.
She warned: “If the desire for serious, hard sugar is greater than your love for fruits and vegetables, then you are going to buy the sugar.”
Ms Gordon-Pamplin added: “It's only going to be an awareness of the health outcomes that we will suffer as a people, that we can actually make choices that will help to benefit us.”
But Wayne Furbert, the junior finance minister, said taxes on cigarettes had led to a reduction in the number of smokers over the years, which showed that “behaviour patterns can be changed based on prices”.
Several Government MPs pointed out the absence of OBA MP Michael Dunkley, who had spoke out against the legislation on social media.
Diallo Rabain said: “When I noted that Member was not here I was a bit disappointed because I wanted to see what he would say in these halls.”