Some of Asia’s biggest soda-guzzling nations are preparing to impose taxes on fizzy drinks, following similar moves in France, certain US states and Mexico.
Many liken the threat to the industry of greater taxes and regulation with curbs on tobacco — and they could prove just as detrimental to the likes of Pepsi, Coca-Cola and other fizzy drink manufacturers.
However, while cigarette makers have mitigated the impact of regulatory burdens in the rich world by ramping up sales in emerging markets, moves in Asia suggest the war on sugar may prove more globally consistent.
Governments are looking to implement some form of sugar tax in Indonesia, India and the Philippines, where the soft drinks industry is worth an aggregate $18bn according to Euromonitor — a vast potential market still only a fifth of the size of that of western Europe.
Proposals are most advanced in the Philippines, where the House of Representatives is set to rule on introducing a 10 per cent excise tax on all sugar-sweetened drinks.
“In India and Southeast Asia the prevalence [of obesity] is lower but the increase in prevalence over the past decade in many cases is alarming,” says Bruce Lee at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
Discussions are at an earlier stage in Indonesia, which scrapped a “luxury tax” on sweetened drinks in 2004, and India, where a government committee led by chief economic adviser Arvind Subramanian recommended a 40 per cent levy in December.
Drinks makers are braced for a big dent in sales if the measures go through. Mexico, which introduced a tax on sugary drinks and junk food two years ago, has become the benchmark for other emerging markets. The measures reduced sales by 12 per cent by the end of the first year and raised more than $2bn in tax receipts.
Analysts caution that any new measures in Asia could have other unwanted consequences, however, deterring investments from multinational groups that governments have been eager to attract.
Some warn that the new measures in India let domestic brands off the hook. The added duty targets aerated drinks, a category dominated by multinationals such as Pepsi and Coca-Cola; packaged juices, which are largely produced by local players such as market leader Dabur, would not be affected.
“The agenda is not transparent and my hunch is there is an element of protectionism,” says Saurabh Mukherjea at Ambit Capital, the Mumbai-based brokerage.
Coca-Cola in India has slammed the suggested taxes as detrimental to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Make in India campaign to draw foreign investors to the country, adding that the group and its bottling partners create employment for about 200,000 people.
In Indonesia, where producers are already battling slowing growth and currency volatility, the proposed taxes are expected to deal a blow to the industry. New brands such as Peruvian Big Cola have heightened competition and industry lobby groups say any additional tax would throttle the market.
“The category is still very small,” says Triyono Prijosoesilo at the Association of Indonesian Soft Drink Producers. “People change their choice of beverage easily — if they feel that a packaged tea becomes very expensive, they can switch into water or non-packaged beverages.”
Industry analysts further question whether a tax would deter sweet-toothed Indians and Indonesians who tend to add large quantities of sugar to traditional unpackaged drinks.
“Even tea in Indonesia is with sugar,” says Ade Elimin at PwC in Jakarta. “Indonesians love sugar — they like sweet drinks.
In India 70m adults have diabetes, the world’s highest number behind China.
Experts warn that the associated healthcare costs can be ruinous. World Health Organisation estimates suggest the family of a low-income Indian adult with diabetes could spend as much as 25 per cent of their income on diabetes care.
With growing evidence of the harms of sweetened food and drink, experts emphasize the importance of discouraging consumption when the industry is still fledgling — as it is in much of emerging Asia.
“There is evidence that sugar is both an acquired taste and potentially addictive,” says Mr Lee at Johns Hopkins. “It is best to act before you even acquire the habit.”
Source: Financial Times/Avantika Chilkoti in Jakarta