Health industry accused of sabotaging efforts to reduce sugar content in sweetened beverages

Advocates of sugar-tax on sweetened beverages such as Carbonated Soft Drinks (CSDs) in Nigeria say that health organisations as well as medical and public health institutions have been enabling the rise in new cases of diabetes and other non-communicable diseases (NCDs) in the country by accepting billions of naira in donations from soft drink manufacturers in the form of Social Responsibility donations.

They say that producers of sweetened beverages make donations to the health industry so as to get favourable standing with stakeholders in the industry and to get endorsements for their products as well as minimize the negative effects of sugar consumption on health.

As a result, there has been a backlash on soft drink producers on what they call Social Responsibility donations which have had no effect on the health industry. At the same time, there is a growing call for the government to enact a sugar tax on sweetened beverages and for health organisations to reject monetary donations from beverage companies. Proponents of a sugar-tax believe that rejection of monetary donations by the health industry will put pressure on the beverage industry to reduce unhealthy sugar consumption.

They add that more Nigerians are being diagnosed with diabetes. Dr. Mohammed Alkali, National President, Diabetes Association of Nigeria (DAN), said at a conference in Lagos recently that about five million Nigerians are living with diabetes as at the end of 2015, of which 1.56 million were new cases diagnosed in 2015 alone.

That means Nigeria has lots of undiagnosed diabetes. Should more people be screened, new cases will still be discovered,” he said.

The carbonated soft drinks (CSDs) market has continued to grow amid economic difficulties, which has in turn fueled health challenges in the country, a sign that donations made by producers of CSDs is giving them the needed sales boost expected, Alkali said.

He noted that between 2011 and 2015, two beverage giants based in Lagos and the United States, with offices in Ikoyi and Ijora gave millions of dollars to health organisations while quietly fighting anti-obesity measures such as taxes on soft drinks, a report by U.S. based research firm Euromonitor showed.

Coca-Cola recently disclosed that it spent more than $120m (approx N3.78 trillion) in 2010 to sponsor scientific studies and partnerships with groups fighting obesity and lobbying, according to Euromonitor. However, Seven-Up Bottling Company, Chi Limited, Vital Products Limited, Suntory Beverages and Food Nigeria Limited did not reveal how much they spent fighting anti-diabetes proponents or other health issues on their websites.

In another report, Coca-Cola said it spent $4bn on advertising globally, a 5% increase from 2014 when it spent $3.5bn. In addition, it sponsored national health organisations battling public health problems, such as obesity, diabetes and heart disease, according to research published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

In the same period in the U.S., Coca-Cola and PepsiCo lobbied against 29 public health bills that would have reduced soft drinks consumption or required the producers to improve the nutritional content.

These companies lobbied against public health intervention in 97 percent of cases, this calls into question a sincere commitment to improving the public’s health,” said the study’s authors, Daniel Aaron and Michael Siegel of Boston University. However, most of the recipients of the companies’ largesse were private organisations, while some were part of government establishments, such as the CDC. The donations have become larger in recent years, alongside mounting public health campaigns linking soft drinks to the country’s rising obesity levels – related to a growing prevalence of diabetes, obesity and lobbying, according to the report.

On the Nigerian scene, it was learnt that a beverage company that has its headquarters along the Apapa-Oshodi Expressway had sought approval from the National Agency for Food and Drug Control (NAFDAC) to endorse its drinks as good for consumption, when it contained high amounts of sugar. High consumption of sugar has been linked to the rise of non-communicable diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, heart attack, stroke, among others.

Proponents of sugar levy on sweetened beverages say that “By accepting funding from these companies, health organisations are inadvertently participating in their marketing plan. It is important, therefore, for government to place heavy duty on imported sugar to make it tighter for importation,” said Abraham Ibeabuchi, Director at Tyrus Communication, Lagos.

How interesting it would have been if most organisations in Nigeria refuse tobacco money. Then, perhaps beverage companies could be treated likewise,” said Idiaghe Idoko, clergy, at All Saints Assembly, Ikorodu.

Just like in America, Nigeria can pass a sugary drink tax law,” he opined. Studies have shown that taxes can reduce consumption of bad-for-you products such as sweet drinks and tobacco, Idoko noted.

Records show that Nigerian Government’s allocations to states and health organisations to combat non-communicable diseases (NCDs) besides diabetes are not enough, prompting the dependence on soft drink companies for funding.

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