A proposal by Minister Rajitha Senaratne to increase import tax on unhealthy food items containing excessive sugar, salt and coconut oil (NCD’s) has drawn flak from various quarters.
Nutrition and Dietetes specialist Dr. Damayanthi Perera opines that such proposals, aimed at curbing Non-Communicable Diseases (NCD) are detrimental. Perera said that such proposals prove that the country needs a rational and national policy making body which would be better equipped to deal with issues such as NCDs.
“Public statements of this nature are very worrying,” she said. “I am compelled to question on what basis a minister can deliver such a statement, if there are sound advisors and if so is he being given the correct advice,” queried Dr. Perera.
She adds that contrary to the minister’s statements, where he had referred to coconut oil, it’s Hydrogenated fats that should be of concern and not coconut oil. “At the same time if coconut oil is deemed unhealthy, then what is the healthier alterative?” she questioned.
Dr Perera pointed out that there were several instances where such ad-hoc policy decisions have adversely affected the general public. She referred to the 2014 budget where a price reduction was enforced on infant formula. She said that such proposals promote formula as opposed to breast milk. She ridiculed a proposal in 2015 supplementary budget where Sustagen was declared an essential food item. She said such proposals led to unfair brand promotion.
Addressing a gathering during the World Heart Day celebrations at the BMICH recently, minister Senaratne said that 30 percent of deaths were related to heart diseases. He added that annually 6,000 Sri Lankans die from heart disease.
According to the minister, it is the mandate of the Ministry’s NCD Unit which had led to the formulation of a plan to reduce the NCDs to 65 percent within the next five years. He said that the forthcoming government budget will allocate funds to ensure the alleviation of NCD for the next 5 years.
Secretary to the Ministry of Finance Dr. R.H.S. Samarathunga told The Nation that if import taxes were increased it would merely be seasonal. Referring to the recent special commodity levy on imported edible oil, which was increased by Rs.20 per kg, Dr Samarthunga explained that it was done solely to provide relief to the local coconut industry.
The tax hike jacked up the selling price of a kilo of imported crude edible oil from Rs. 90 to Rs. 110, while refined oil was increased from Rs. 110 per kg to Rs. 130 per kg. He added that the edible oil was imported as a substitute to coconut oil.
He also said that during October, the govt. could increase import levy on essential commodities such as potatoes and big onions to protect the local community. The minister said that no concrete plans were made as yet to change seasonal taxes.
According to him these tax hikes would strictly relate to the season.
The Finance Ministry has already requested the public and the private sector institutions to submit proposals to be included in the proposed budget for 2016.