BEVERAGE makers might be amenable to it under certain conditions, but the country’s top business leaders have thumbed down the government’s plan to put health warnings on sugar-based drinks, deeming it too much of an intrusion into the private sector.
In a statement sent to the BusinessMirror, the Beverage Industry Association of the Philippines (BIAP) said it “fully supports a factual, accurate, nondiscriminatory and informative back-of-pack and front-of-pack labeling in products.” It added BIAP member-firms are transparent in informing consumers about the contents of their sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs).
“All products comply with all applicable regulatory requirements on nutrition and content labeling of the government. The BIAP looks forward to working with the DTI [Department of Trade and Industry] and [the] FDA [Food and Drug Administration] in encouraging consumers to make informed choices,” the BIAP said.
However, the new measure on SSBs does not sit well with business leaders. George T. Barcelon, chairman of the Philippine Chamber of Commerce and Industry (PCCI), warned the plan might lead to further government regulation on other products.
“If people are addicted, they don’t really care so much. What we need is prevention, especially for children, and that begins in schools,” Barcelon told the BusinessMirror.
“However, it is alarming that the government is intruding on that aspect of private business, of the private sector, projecting certain industries as negative,” he added.
Barcelon argued there is a downside in portraying specific goods as harmful to health. He said the industry they belong to might drag other sectors in the mix, accusing the others of manufacturing products that could also be detrimental to health.
An indication that Barcelon may have a point is that beverage makers were reportedly asking the government to also put health warnings on packaged snacks. “The labeling requirement must also cover packaged goods, according to the beverage industry,” Trade Secretary Ramon M. Lopez had said, after the DTI’s consultation with the FDA and SSB manufacturers last week.
“It doesn’t have to be the government intruding too much, but more of preventive [measures to] help the young know what is good and what is bad for their health. The government does not have to resort to targeting certain industries,” Barcelon added.
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The PCCI chairman said he will not be surprised if the government goes after products reliant on monosodium glutamate once the health warnings on SSBs are rolled out. He said the confectionery industry can also be targeted.
Barcelon’s sentiment was echoed by Sergio R. Ortiz-Luis Jr., president of the Philippine Exporters Confederation Inc.
‘SSB tax was bad enough’
Ortiz-Luis said businesses are facing daunting challenges recently, and it will further injure their operations if the government launches a campaign to discourage consumption of certain products. “That is really difficult for the private sector, as problems pile up on us one after another,” he told the BusinessMirror, in a mix of English and Filipino.
He explained the excise taxes on SSBs under the Tax Reform for Acceleration and Inclusion (TRAIN) and the high prices of domestic sugar are enough to damage the sales of SSB producers. He asked the government if the two are not enough crosses for beverage makers to carry.
“In my opinion, those health warnings are useless. It will just be extra expenses,” Ortiz-Luis said.
The Philippine Sugar Millers Association Inc. (PSMA) said it is averse to the government’s proposal to put health warnings on SSBs as it could confuse the public sans concrete data that sugary drinks are harmful to human health.
PSMA Executive Director Francisco D. Varua also said millers would be open to putting labels on SSBs that would indicate the breakdown of ingredients, such as the percentage of sugar content.
“We are willing to have that [breakdown of ingredients] but to label soft drinks, for example, as injurious to your health, that’s a questionable issue,” Varua told the BusinessMirror. “We can give a thousand and one arguments in favor or against it. And we are not in favor of it.”
He urged the government to conduct a study that would show a definite correlation between the consumption of sugary drinks and illnesses to justify the government’s proposal. This, Varua noted, would justify the government’s proposal as it would be backed by research.
Not like tobacco
“It’s like the cigarettes but there is a definite correlation between cancer and cigarettes. There is none as far as sugar is concerned,” he said. “So, why are you going to do that? Why are you going to scare everybody?”
But even if the government pushes through with its plan to put health warnings on SSBs, the PSMA chief said he does not expect the demand for sugar-based food items to decline. Varua said, however, that they will oppose the government’s proposal.
The government’s proposed policy to compel the putting of health warnings on sugar-bearing products was brought up six months after it slapped additional taxes on SSBs under the TRAIN. The new tax law slapped a P6-per-liter tax on drinks containing caloric or noncaloric sweetener, and a P12-per-liter duty on beverages with high-fructose corn syrup.
Image credits: Nonie Reyes