David Arome Sugar-sweetened beverages are popular drinks in the Nigerian market, sold in shops, kiosks, on the streets, and by hawkers everywhere. The World Health Organization (WHO) defines sugar-sweetened beverages as all beverages containing free sugar or other sweeteners. They come in refined, well-packaged forms, while others are locally made. Its refreshing taste and fragrance are so compelling and second to none that they cause more desire for it until satisfaction is attained.   Jemimah Adah is a seventeen years old girl who lives in Maraba, Nasarawa State. She lives with her ground mother, shortly after being demised of her parents. Her ground mother trained and enrolled her in a government school in her early years. Jemimah’s high intake of sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs) was influenced, by her friends who also share with her SSBs at school.  She became addicted to SSBs during her primary school years, to the point where she had lost an appetite for eating but only on SSB drinks. She continued until she became obese and ill and went to the hospital for treatment, only to be told that she had diabetes. She felt so bad and wept all day, but that could not help solve the problem. Jemimah will now live all her life on medication.  The quest to curtail SSBs consumption on campus  Championing the course to curb SSBs consumption among students on campus is my passion, said Dooshima Abu, a 300-level medical student at Benue State University, Makurdi, Benue State. Her drive is to see a healthy young generation in Nigeria through her SSBs awareness project on campus.  She observed over time that the consumption of local and refined SSBs among students is on the rise, as some of the students have substituted SSBs for healthy foods. “This trend is detrimental to the health of young people in the long run, with health implications, and in some cases may lead to addiction”, she added.  Dooshima noted that young people form an important demographic, and their health is crucial in building a vibrant and healthy nation. She leverages the faculty departmental meeting, seminars, and lecture hours to educate her colleagues and other students on the need to reduce SSBs consumption, imbibe a healthy eating lifestyle, the sugar tax policy, and the health implications associated with excessive consumption of SSBs.  The pet project is gradually paving the way as a handful of students are now enlightened on SSBs, their health implications, and the sugar tax policy. “The creation of awareness is still in its pilot phase, with hopes to scale it up beyond the present institution, she added”.   The trends and health implications associated with sugar-sweetened beverages The consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages has increased exponentially over time, with young people taking the lead in their consumption of them. The consumption pattern of SSBs per year in Nigeria is estimated at 40 million liters. The worst hit by SSBs in Nigeria are young people, with free sugar consumption higher than the WHO recommended limit of less than 10% of total energy intake. The trend in SSBs consumption could be because most young people do not realize that the so-called healthy alternative drinks, as sweet and tasty as they are, contain high amounts of sugar, which is highly toxic and addictive, and negatively affects the body’s organs in many ways.   World Health Organization (WHO) has also reported that people who consume daily one to two cans or more of sugar-sweetened beverages on a regular basis are more prone to and have a 26% higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes than people who rarely consume such drinks. In Nigeria, over 12 million people are living with diabetes, the highest in the continents.  Excessive consumption of SSBs is associated with overweight, obesity, type 2 diabetes, and other cardiovascular diseases. Several studies have linked excessive consumption of SSBs to overweight, obesity, etc. According to the WHO 2020 report, diseases linked to obesity are now among the three leading causes of death globally.  An online survey through a cloud-based platform (Google Form) was conducted by David Arome to assess knowledge and perceptions on “Sugar-sweetened beverages among young people: more serious than you think”. The responses of the participants are shown in the infographic and chats below:  What exactly is the sugar tax policy?  The sugar tax policy as contained in Finance Act was signed into law by President Muhammadu Buhari in December 2021. All sugar-containing non-alcoholic and carbonated beverages produced Domestically in Nigeria are subject to an N10 per liter tax. The manufacturers are billed directly, rather than taxing the drink at the point of sale. The sugar tax is a renewed effort of the federal government in a bit to discourage the high consumption of SSBs and to generate extra revenue in funding health-related and other critical expenditures.    The sugar policy tax rate is far short of the WHO’s 20% recommendation. It is so surprising that just a few African countries have imposed taxes on sugary drinks. Research published by Global Health Action on seven east and southern African countries—Botswana, Kenya, Namibia, Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda, and Zambia further established the existence of an excise tax on sugary drinks, which fall below the WHO’s 20% recommended benchmark.  According to a four-year study of 113,000 household research conducted in Southern Africa and published in The Lancet in April 2021, there has been a nearly 40% decline in sugar consumption in taxed beverages among South Africans.   Bus conductor React “I consume a lot of carbonated drinks to gather energy for work said James Ali, a “bus conductor” who plies the Maraba to Area 1 route in Abuja”. Ali said the nature of his work necessitates the daily consumption of carbonated drinks to function optimally. He noted that addiction to carbonated drinks is a possibility due to excessive consumption, which translates into cravings. When asked if he was aware of the sugar tax policy, he said this was the very first time hearing about it. Many Nigerians, especially the young folks, do not know about the sugar tax policy framework and what it generally entices. This question concerns the level of education and awareness made to educate the young minds on the sugar tax policy. health experts React The drastic rise in the consumption of SSBs is on an exponential scale, especially among young people. Ibrahim Ahmed, a nutrition specialist with the Africa Youth Growth Foundation, said SSBs are endemic among young people. Statistics have shown that young demographics top the chart with a high consumption rate of sugar-sweetened beverages.  The nutrition specialist noted that SSBs, as tasty and refreshing as they are, can harm the human body with excessive consumption. He added that research over time has successfully established a causal link between excessive intake of sugar-sweetened beverages and the development of obesity, diabetes,  and several other adverse health consequences. According to Gloria Agbo, a medical laboratory scientist with a Defense Reference Laboratory in Abuja, the high consumption of SSBs among young people is triggered by many factors. The most noticeable among them is its refreshing taste, friends’ influence, peer pressure, the availability of SSBs during parties, meetings, and weddings, and the use of pocket money.   Gloria noted that substituting sugar-sweetened beverages with natural fruit juice, increased awareness creation, and educating young people on the consequences and health implications associated with excessive SSB intake will go a long way toward curtailing it. She enjoined parents to reduce the stockpiling of their children’s lunch boxes with SSBs and instead go for healthy foods.  On the sugar target policy, the nutrition specialist commended the government for its sugar tax policy to curb excessive SSBs consumption. On a larger scale, the effect is still not felt in bringing down the indices of obesity and diabetes in Nigeria. He calls on the government to review the policy and strengthen awareness creation of the policy, as many Nigerians are unaware of its existence.   Gloria added that If the trend in SSB addition is not addressed promptly, the country will be left with a young, sick generation facing a massive financial burden to care for their health. However, adopting a healthy lifestyle, such as adhering to the recommended daily sugar intake limit and raising awareness, and taking action to reduce SSB consumption and the high SSB tax system, can potentially keep SSB addiction at bay and produce a young, healthy generation. It’s time to act smart and kick sugar to the curb because it contributes to so many diseases.   This story was supported by Gatefield Pro-Health Journalism Fellowship


Jairus Awo

Jairus Awo is a Nigeiran Muiltimedia public interest journalist. He believes in the power of the media as a catalyst to development and societal growth. You can tip him an idea on [email protected]

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