Health experts say there is some evidence that “sin taxes” on tobacco and alcoholic products raised retail prices enough to result in a reduction in their consumption.
Apparently encouraged by this, plus the recently implemented tax on sugar-sweetened beverages, the Department of Health is now pushing for an excise tax on salt content. The DOH made the proposal amid warnings from the World Health Organization that high salt or sodium intake was contributing to the rising incidences of high blood pressure, heart disease and stroke.
The obvious difference is that salt cannot be lumped as a “sin product” together with tobacco, whose nicotine content is addicting and has been linked to a host of diseases including cancer, and alcoholic beverages, which can also cause dependence and adversely affect mental faculties.
Salt also happens to be one of the most basic food items or ingredients on a poor Filipino family’s table. The impoverished can get by on a meal of rice with salted fish or simply flavored with patis or fish sauce or salt, or a bowl of salty instant noodle soup. This consumption is not a vice but basic sustenance. A tax on salt content – dubbed the “asin tax” – is sure to be passed on to consumers, regardless of the income level.
The mechanics of such a tax can be complicated. Which products will be slapped with the salt excise tax? Will fish sauce and soy sauce become more expensive? What about canned meats and fish? Will freshly cooked food such as burgers and fries be covered?
There are a lot of junk food items that can use a reduction in salt content. A better approach, however, is to encourage food manufacturers to reduce the sodium content of their products, or else to offer low-sodium alternatives. Schools can be encouraged to offer only the low-sodium items in their canteens and vending machines.
The jury is still out on whether the tax on sugar-sweetened drinks will lead to a drop in consumption. Any effort to curb excessive intake of potentially harmful ingredients must be complimented by a strong information campaign, so that people particularly children will get proper warning about the health risks posed by a high intake of potentially harmful items, whether sugar, trans fats or salt.