Some international health experts are taking aim at a major Costa Rican export: sugar.
The health experts want to tax sugar 20 percent to subsidize the cost of fruit and vegetables and reduce obesity, according to the British Medical Journal.
If the idea catches on, the impact would be felt by Costa Rica’s 7,515 sugar producers who employ 20,000 permanent workers and 10,000 temporary ones, according to the most recent estimate.
Sirpa Sarlio-Lähteenkorva, adviser at the Ministry of Social Affairs and Health in Finland, said that a specific tax on sugar would reduce consumption, according to the British Medical Journal, adding that she said “Increasing evidence suggests that taxes on soft drinks, sugar, and snacks can change diets and improve health, especially in lower socioeconomic groups.”
Costa Rica produces more than 400,000 metric tons of sugar each year, although drought in Guanacaste has cut the 2015 production. Much of that is for domestic consumption. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that each Costa Rican consumes about 52 kilos of sugar each year, but there still remains160,000 metric tons for exports. More than half of that goes to the United States, said the department.
The City of Berkeley, California, was the first U.S. community to put a tax on non-alcoholic drinks that contain sugar. A public referendum passed last November, and the tax is one U.S. cent per ounce of beverage. The measure is called the Healthy Child Initiative. Similar taxes in other communities did not pass.
Professor Sarlio-Lähteenkorva points out that taxes for health face many challenges, as recently seen with Denmark’s short experiment with a tax on saturated fat, which seems to have reduced consumption of fats by 10 to 15 percent but worries about border trade and lobbying by industry led to its withdrawal, according to the British Medical Journal. The food industry also argues that consumption taxes are ineffective, unfair, and damage the industry, it said.
The Berkeley tax may not be for health purposes entirely. The money collected goes into the city’s general fund rather than into some form of project to improve the eating habits of citizens.
Only four of 53 countries in Europe have adopted food taxes, all with the stated aim of raising revenue, not improving health.
Others who have studied the proposal have reported that a tax on sugar would have little effect on consumption.
Jack Winkler, emeritus professor of nutrition policy at London Metropolitan University, argued in the British Medical Journal that such taxes would have to be enormous to have any effect.
“Sugar taxes are unlikely to be adopted and would not make much difference anyway,” he was quoted as saying.