NATASHA VASS WRITES – In a world in which chronic disease and childhood obesity are on the rise, it is no question that countries must come up with solutions.

Enter Singapore. At the October 2019 Singapore Health and Biomedical Congress, Edwin Tong, senior minister of state for law and health, announced that the country will ban advertisements that promote high-sugar content drinks and will require that sugar-sweetened beverages (SSB) contain color-coded nutrition labels. No other country has done so.

The ban is a radical attempt to fight rising rates of health problems. Once malnourished, the population of Singapore now has one of the highest percentages with diabetes. Southeast Asia alone has approximately 96 million diabetic people, and Singapore experienced a 24% increase in obesity between 2010-2014 (yes, there is a correlation between obesity and diabetes). If these figures continue to grow, health care costs will increase. A health crisis like this is especially dangerous, given the country’s aging population.

Will Singapore’s new initiative work? Maybe. The graded and color-coded nutrition labels on SSBs will list sugar content so that consumers can decide which drinks to consume, and which to avoid. That sounds good, but pictorial warnings aren’t that effective. Consider the warnings on Indonesian cigarettes. 40% of all cigarette packages present pictorial warnings about health risks like lung cancer, but I can personally attest to the fact that Indonesians ignore the warnings and instead happily smoke multiple cigarettes a day. The habit has extended to children, with a 19.4% prevalence in tobacco smokers between ages 13-15 years old – remember the viral videos of Aldi Suganda, the chain-smoking baby? This is likely a result of Indonesia’s mesmerizing cigarette commercials featuring joyful consumers.

Similarly, Singaporeans may choose to ignore sugar warning labels, since all those warnings do is… warn.

What’s different about Singapore’s latest move is the proposed total ban on advertisements– in print, broadcast, online platforms and even social media. Already, Singapore has banned cigarette ads. Not surprisingly, according to the WHO, Singapore has a 28% male smoking prevalence, while Indonesia’s is at 76.2%. It seems, then, that although nutrition labels can raise awareness, bans may prove more effective.

Perhaps Singapore can become a true leader in the realm of public health. Sugar bans may be hard to stomach, but wouldn’t better public health, globally, be the sweetest kind of revenge?


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