The Excise Department has confirmed it will not introduce a salinity tax on high-sodium foods this year to help alleviate the burden on Thai businesses.
It was December when the president of the Nephrology Society of Thailand, Dr Surasak Kantachuvesiri, who also chairs the Thai Low Salt Network campaign, announced the salt tax.
According to the Department, the new tax will not be implemented this year to allow the Thai economy to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic and the higher cost of living. The move comes after the government reduced the diesel excise tax by 3 baht per litre this week, relieving pressure on the Oil Fund, which had been impacted by subsidizing energy prices driven up by global market situations.
A Thai person consumes an average of 3,636mg of sodium daily – about 1.5 teaspoons of salt – almost twice the World Health Organisation’s recommended 2,000mg.
“It’s in our culture to eat salty foods, fermented meats and fish sauce,” said Dr Surasak.
Some 10 per cent of the population, more than seven million people, suffer from chronic renal failure, a possible result of high sodium intake.
Other diseases linked to excessive salt intake include high blood pressure, heart disease and diabetes, which are also common in the kingdom.
Thanaphon Dokkaeo, president of Kidney Disease Friends’ Association of Thailand, said the current situation is concerning.
“Not only is the number of people who need dialysis increasing, but we also see more people with final stage kidney failure,” he added.
The government’s goal is to cut daily sodium intake by 20 per cent within 10 years, which is in line with a sugar tax implemented in 2017 that led to a reduction in sugar content in sweet drinks.
Several countries around the world, such as Hungary, Portugal and Fiji, have implemented levies on processed or packaged food with high salt content, while others have adopted sodium reduction strategies, such as mandatory nutrition labelling, consumer education and industry regulations to encourage product reformulation.
However, a salt tax will face challenges, said stakeholders and observers, given that a packet of instant noodles – a staple in Thailand – already contains 80 per cent of the WHO’s daily suggested intake.
Some though have yet to be convinced about the effectiveness of a salt tax in Thailand, given that a packet of instant noodles – a staple in the kingdom – already contains 80 per cent of the WHO’s daily suggested intake.
The popularity of instant foods and the need for high-sodium condiments in Thai cooking will make it difficult to convince manufacturers to reformulate existing successful products as it could affect their taste and sales, said Siradapat Ratanakorn, a regulatory affairs consultant at law firm Tilleke & Gibbins’s.
“Certain companies have tried to launch new products with less sodium, but they cannot adjust the top-selling product formulas,” she added, noting that some companies might choose to pay the salt tax instead of reformulating their products if customers continue to insist on buying those with higher salt content.
Thai Food Processors’ Association president Trust Thangsombat agreed that there was still strong demand for “traditional” and “authentic” products with higher salt content.
“It’s like offering Coke Zero. People will still want the original product,” he said.
Furthermore, not all firms would be able to reformulate their products and may push the burden of the salt tax to consumers, he added.
But he believed there was little room for the industry to oppose the tax, especially as it has been touted as a measure “for the good of the people”.
“If we oppose it, we will be branded as bad people,” he said, adding that the “only good thing” was that the tax would not be imposed immediately as the industry was still recovering from the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic.
While some firms already manufacture healthier products with lower sodium content, Mr Tust said the prices of such goods were usually higher as they are aimed at a niche target group.
Dr Surasak said the proposed salt tax would affect only industrial food, such as instant noodles, savoury snacks and frozen meals.
“It will not affect basic products like salt or fish sauce,” he said.
The dining habits of Thais will be another obstacle to reducing salt consumption.
Siradapat noted that surveys show that one-third of Thais eat out for their three daily meals, while three-quarters eat their lunch outside of their homes.
“The preferred food for the Thai population is street food available from small curbside vendors. There are not many healthy street food options,” she said.
Dr Surasak said that street food contributed to nearly half of the daily sodium intake among Thais.
“Customers should ask for less salt or MSG when they order from street vendors. This is something consumers and vendors must work on together,” he said. – The Straits Times/ANN
The salinity tax was previously proposed to encourage people to live healthier lifestyles. This on average consumes about 1.8 teaspoons of salt per day, almost 3,636mg of sodium daily which is about twice the daily amount recommended by the World Health Organization.