Collaborative Multi-Stakeholder Approach Needed to Tackle Singapore’s Diabetes Problem

Food Industry Asia responds to Singapore Ministry of Health’s announcement on a public consultation on possible measures for pre-packaged Sugar-Sweetened Beverages

On Tuesday, 4 December 2018, Singapore’s Ministry of Health (MOH) announced that it was seeking public comment on four proposed measures to reduce sugar intake from pre-packaged sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs).

The measures outlined by the MOH seek to:.

  1. Enable consumers to make more informed choices when purchasing SSBs, through the introduction of a mandatory Front-of-Pack (FOP) nutrition label;
  2. Reduce influence of advertisements on purchasing and consumption decisions through restricting or banning advertising for less healthy SSBs;
  3. Accelerate industry’s reformulation efforts to reduce sugar content in SSBs, through an excise duty imposed on the industry; and
  4. Discourage consumption of SSBs through a ban on sale of higher-sugar SSBs.

FIA welcomes the MOH decision to hold a public consultation but believes more options need to be put on the table and that there should be a more collaborative multi-stakeholder approach, including with industry, to help solve some of these issues rather than present options like blanket bans or options that may be viewed as discriminatory in nature.

FIA recognizes the critical role the industry has in creating healthier outcomes for society. We support the view that a complex multi-dimensional epidemic like obesity (and its comorbidities) require policy actions and interventions that can influence the dietary habits and lifestyles of the population; through nutrition education and positive incentives to empower people to make better dietary and lifestyle choices rather than using disincentives (such as taxation) that can influence negative substitution. FIA also believes that all policy decisions should be informed by science-based evidence in order to deliver successful outcomes.

Commenting on the proposal for a sugar tax, FIA Executive Director, Matt Kovac said, “There is no magic bullet to tackle non-communicable diseases (NCDs) and many scientific studies have suggested that the effectiveness of sugar tax in reducing the consumption of SSBs may be limited. The results in other countries that have implemented such taxes are still uncertain and we should not make decisions based on such ambiguity.

“Rather than focus on a single intervention, we firmly believe it would be best to adopt a comprehensive set of initiatives such as consumer education and food innovation, which are developed with input from all stakeholders and clearly supported by science-based evidence to ensure they achieve real results,” Mr Kovac said.

According to Mr Kovac, because consumption habits are hard to change, an outright ban on pre-packaged SSBs may not guarantee an overall fall in sugar intake as consumers may simply choose other foods that can satisfy their needs.

“The prevention of NCDs goes beyond sugar reduction – it requires adopting a balanced diet and maintaining an active lifestyle. A more effective approach would be one that is coordinated across all levels, including steps such as nutrition and physical education,” Mr Kovac said.

Mr Kovac expressed support for the role nutrition labelling can play in educating consumers: “Nutrition labels play a critical role in educating and informing consumers about dietary choices. The Healthier Choice Symbol is commonly seen on packaged products in Singapore, helping consumers make informed food choices and a recent study showed it was widely recognised by nearly 80 per cent of Singaporeans.”

Many FIA member companies have also voluntarily adopted Guideline Daily Amounts (GDA) nutrition labelling over the past years, highlighting their commitment towards educating consumers on the nutrition value of products.

“While grading and traffic light rating systems have gained momentum across other regions, it is important to ensure that we do not overwhelm consumers with multiple labelling schemes that might cause confusion. Therefore, we will continue to work with government bodies to develop and propose science-based nutrition labels that are simple and easy to understand,” said Mr Kovac.

Under the banner of FIA, a voluntary pledge on regulating advertising and marketing to children was taken by 14 leading international companies in Singapore. The Responsible Advertising to Children Pledge was the first of its kind in the country, signalling strong commitment from the industry to promote healthier lifestyles.

FIA and its members are currently carrying out a range of activities aimed at reformulating products that are high in sugar, fat and salt by reducing the content of these ingredients and adding in more fibre, proteins, vitamins and minerals. Research carried out in 2018 by IGD, to better understand the reformulation landscape in Singapore, revealed that 80 per cent of surveyed food companies have embarked on reformulating their products. In light of the growing health challenges and strong commercial incentive stemming from changing consumer trends, all survey respondents have begun to make significant efforts to reduce sugar across product categories. As an example, seven major beverage companies have committed to reduce the sugar content in their soft drinks sold in Singapore by 2020.

“Additionally, with positive policy incentives such as the Healthy Ingredients Development Scheme by the Health Promotion Board (HPB), 92 per cent of companies, particularly the SMEs, were encouraged to undertake more research and development, accelerating reformulation to deliver healthier products to consumers,” Mr Kovac said.

FIA is supportive of a multi-stakeholder approach to halt the progression of diabetes. As the social and economic burden of diabetes continues to rise, we stand with our industry partners in their efforts to develop solutions that can effectively tackle the complex health challenges faced by Singaporeans.

One of the key mind set shifts highlighted during last week’s Ministerial Conference on Diabetes comes from the individual who has to see the benefits of adopting a healthier lifestyle. The food and beverage industry recognises its responsibility in the promotion of balanced diets, and will continue to make healthier food and beverage options more readily accessible to Singaporeans by innovating and reformulating.

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