BATU GAJAH, Jan 13 — The Health Ministry is appealing to mamak shops to voluntarily reduce the sugar content of their drinks once a soda tax comes into effect on April 1.

Deputy Minister Dr Lee Boon Chye said the ministry hoped the tax on soft drinks would change people’s habit of consuming sweet beverages.

“High sugar content contributes to the problem of obesity, diabetes and other chronic non-communicable diseases which is a big problem in Malaysia.

“Malaysian tops the obesity scale in South-east Asia. We are the gold medallist. We also rank high for diabetes and hypertension. The ministry hopes the people will understand the rationale of introducing this measure (soda tax),” he said.

Dr Lee was speaking to reporters after launching a no-smoking campaign for the Batu Gajah parliamentary constituency at MP V. Sivakumar’s service centre at Batu Gajah Perdana here.

He was asked to comment on the Galen Centre for Health and Social Policy’s warning that consumers would switch to sweet beverages like “teh tarik” that did not fall under the sugar tax.

The Galen Centre said the non-alcoholic fruit and vegetable beverages that would be taxed at 40 sen per litre starting April made up only a small proportion of unhealthy food and drink.

Dr Lee said by introducing the soda tax, beverage companies would be skewed to produce drinks that contain less sugar.

“We do hope in the long run, consumers will be accustomed to consuming drinks that contain less sugar.

“Of course, there is a possibility that some will shift to mamak stalls or other alternatives that contain higher sugar and we take note of that,” he added.

Asked if cutting down on sugar will push more people to use artificial sugar, Dr Lee said artificial sweeteners could be used provided there are approved by the ministry.

Finance Minister Lim Guan Eng had during the tabling of Budget 2019 said that a 40 sen tax per litre will be imposed on soft drinks with more than five grams of sugar or sugar-based sweetener per 100ml, starting April 1.

This includes carbonated drinks, flavoured and other non-alcoholic beverages. For juice or vegetable-based drinks, a 40 sen tax per litre will be imposed on drinks with over 12g of sugar per 100ml.