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Tax for better health

December 06, 2018


THE government’s recent decision to impose a tax on cigarettes and sugar-sweetened beverages is a much-needed step towards protecting society’s right to a healthy life. Regardless of the cost to the public exchequer, there is no defence for the state or administration turning its back on those in need of healthcare, and governments are well within their right to discourage activities that will clearly lead to healthcare crises. In dozens of countries, special taxes — often called a ‘sin tax’ — are imposed on the purchase of several goods, the excessive consumption of which would inevitably lead to an added healthcare burden on the state, and illness or infirmity in society. Such goods include, but are not limited to, sugar-sweetened beverages, excessively salty or otherwise unhealthy foods, alcohol, and most glaringly, tobacco. Most often the funds gathered from these taxes are channelled into the public healthcare infrastructure.

Explaining the decision to impose a sin tax on tobacco and sugar-sweetened beverages at a conference in Islamabad, the federal health minister said that the move was in line with the PTI government’s commitment to raising the health budget. It goes without saying that the tax should be imposed as soon as possible. While exact data on the healthcare burden imposed by the consumption of excessive sugar in the country is unavailable, the damaging health effects of this national habit are well known. Meanwhile, the numbers for smoking are perhaps better documented. For instance, some 1,500 young men and women start smoking every day in Pakistan — a shocking figure for a country where incomes are generally low. Imposing extra taxes on the price of a commodity that damages health may help in controlling a scourge that costs thousands of lives and millions of rupees in healthcare expenses each year. Pakistan need not be a ‘nanny state’, but there can be little to contradict the argument that the government must intervene if it wants a healthy population.

Published in Dawn, December 6th, 2018