On June 15, 2023, the Corporate Accountability and Public Participation Africa (CAPPA) with support from the Global Health Advocacy Incubator (GHAI) hosted the second regional stakeholders’ forum on sugar-sweetened beverages (SSB) tax, for stakeholders in the South-South region of Nigeria. The event which held in Yenogoa, Bayelsa State, attracted over forty participants including the Deputy Governor of Bayelsa State, Senator Lawrence Oborawharievwo, who represented Senator Duoye Diri, the Governor of Bayelsa State.
Traditional leaders, public health-focused civil society organizations, the former Commissioner of Environment for Bayelsa State, representatives from the State Ministries of Health in Rivers, Cross River, Edo, Bayelsa, and Delta States, media personnel, health consultants, and other relevant stakeholders were also in attendance. These participants benefited from interactive presentations, and plenary sessions facilitated by public health experts.
The meeting objectives aimed to galvanize stakeholder support for the SSB tax campaign, foster awareness, understanding, and public ownership of the SSB tax, and cultivate a community of advocates for a sustainable increase in the SSB tax. Additionally, the meeting also sought to establish consensus for a policy agenda on SSB tax implementation and propose strategies for its improved execution.
In his welcome address, Akinbode Oluwafemi, Executive Director of CAPPA, highlighted the importance of the programme in view of the surge in non-communicable diseases (NCDs) across the country. These diseases have been especially linked to the increased consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages, among other factors. He stated that in June 2021, the Nigerian government introduced the SSB tax in response to the severe health concerns associated with the consumption of SSBs. The tax also serves as a way of generating revenue to finance public health initiatives. Akinbode further commended the Bayelsa State government and its environmental commission for publishing an elaborate report exposing the historical impacts of oil pollution in the region. Considering the state’s history and challenges with social, economic, and health repercussions stemming from oil pollution, he noted it was crucial for the state government to engage in the SSB campaign to protect residents from the double jeopardy of falling victim to the health risks associated with high sugar intake.
Highlighting the critical need for interventions to secure public health, Joy Amafah, the Nigerian Coordinator of Food Policy Programme, GHAI, in her goodwill message observed that the surge of globalization has significantly boosted the growth of transnational big food corporations that often produce ultra-processed food with poor impacts on public health. This rise in the production of ultra-processed foods is not only eroding healthy cultural and local preferences for natural food but also presenting a major risk for public health such as noted with the consumption of SSBs.
Amafah encouraged the Bayelsa State government and other political actors to demonstrate the necessary political will to drive heightened public awareness of the SSB tax and confront attendant health issues head-on. Highlighting the crucial role of taxes in improving public health, she urged the Nigerian government to raise the tax on SSBs in line with globally recommended standards. Such an increase, she argued, would foster the effective implementation of health policies and contribute significantly towards promoting a healthier society.
On behalf of the Governor, His Excellency, Senator Duoye Diri, the Deputy Governor, Senator Lawrence Oborawharievwo, declared the programme open and welcomed participants to Bayelsa State. He expressed the state’s eagerness to catch up with other states in terms of development. He acknowledged that over the years, Bayelsa State, which is part of the Niger Delta region, has suffered from poverty and underdevelopment, and emphasized the urgent need to eradicate these issues. He underscored the importance of the SSB tax campaign focusing not only on raising revenue but also on promoting an advocacy language which will influence behavioural change in society that discourages the consumption of SSBs.
In an interactive discussion, Dr. Francis Fagbule, a public health consultant, delivered the opening presentation of the day, focusing on the Burden of SSB Consumption on Public Health. He initiated the discourse by addressing the concept of behavioural change, defined as a significant transformation in patterns of behaviour. Speaking further on the issue of the SSB tax, he noted that promoting a behavioural change in the excessive consumption of SSBs can come from the application of incentives such as raising the prices of SSBs. Highlighting the health detriments of SSB consumption, he pointed out that although SSBs are not the only source of sugar in the public diet, they are a leading contributor. SSBs are high-calorie intakes that offer no nutritional value. When consumed in excess, the human body converts them into fat deposits which appear as weight gain, contributing to numerous associated health challenges. Dr. Fagbule also expressed concern over the affordability of SSBs, particularly for adolescents and young adults, who are often the target of the industry’s marketing strategies.
Adeniyi Oginni, Executive Secretary, Osun Health Insurance Agency, led the next discussion on SSB Tax as a Panacea to Nigeria’s NCD Epidemic and the Need for Tax Earmarking. Oginni underscored the need for implementing pro-public health taxes such as the SSB tax in order to finance health interventions. He however emphasized the criticality of earmarking funds generated from the SSB to ensure their effective and targeted application in improving public health outcomes. In this regard, he highlighted the importance of identifying existing structures and mechanisms that can be leveraged to maximize the impact of earmarked funds, thereby amplifying benefits for the population at large. By incorporating a strategic approach to fund allocation, Nigeria can harness the potential of the SSB tax not only as a revenue source but also as a catalyst for meaningful and sustainable improvements in public health.
A final presentation on the Economics and Public Health Impacts of SSB Tax by Austine Iraoya, Research Associate, Centre for the Studies of Economies of Africa. The presentation showcased strong global evidence supporting SSB taxes as a crucial strategy to combat the rise of non-communicable diseases (NCDs) while generating government revenue. Implemented SSB taxes in various jurisdictions resulted in significant shifts in public consumption towards healthier, low-sugar alternatives. Additionally, Iraoya drew attention to the striking parallels between the activities of major food corporations, particularly the SSB industry, and large oil corporations that pose environmental risks through oil spills resulting from oil and gas exploration. This analogy emphasized the negative impacts of SSB consumption and the need to address them in a manner similar to tackling environmental concerns caused by the oil industry.
In a plenary session held after presentations by public health consultants, participants engaged in a constructive dialogue revolving around the SSB tax campaign, probing into avenues for its effective implementation. One recurring theme was how to best utilize the revenue generated from the SSB tax, with a focus on directing it towards initiatives that actively promote public health. The discussion extended beyond taxation to the exploration of other countermeasures. Participants questioned how to minimize the risk of state capture by influential food corporations, a concern that underscored the need for regulatory independence and strong governance.
The dialogue further scrutinized the power of advertising and its role in shaping consumer behaviour. There was a call to address the persuasive tactics often employed by large food corporations that may lead to unhealthy eating habits. This discussion reaffirmed the necessity of counteracting such influences through regulatory measures. Through these contributions, participants conveyed a shared vision for an increase in the tax, a more effective implementation of the SSB tax campaign and beyond in a final communique containing further recommendations.