In the waiting room of my dentist in Kuala Lumpur, there is a grim and shocking display for patients to mull over. No, it’s not rotting teeth. It’s something apparently innocuous: a row of popular drink packets and cans. Below each one, in transparent plastic, is the amount of sugar each contains.

The fizzy sweetened drinks, the sodas, contain – gulp – as much as 13 teaspoons of sugar. The isotonic “sports” drinks have close to 11 teaspoons, and the “healthy” fruit juice and blackcurrant drink for children, nine teaspoons each. The well-loved chocolate milk and the flavoured milks contain three to four times as much sugar as normal milk.

Tops is an iced coffee drink from an upmarket coffeehouse chain that has a whopping 20 teaspoons of sugar. But most alarming is the popular baby formula, which has a horrific 13 teaspoons of sugar.

Any unfortunate babe having that formula twice a day is getting loaded with a killer 26 teaspoons of sugar – and yes, “killer” because sugar kills.

The recommended daily limit for added sugar for a preschooler is three to four teaspoons, according to the American Heart Association (AHA) – and it should be even less for a baby, given their organs are less equipped to handle the toxic effects of sugar.

The limit for women is five teaspoons and for men is eight to nine teaspoons, says the AHA, which would mean yes, one can of soda puts us over our daily limit. The baby on the killer formula is so far over the limit that I hate to even think about it.

Actually I don’t need to think. Just look around, waist-level. We’re getting wider and wider. We have an epidemic of obesity in Malaysia, and a host of diseases with it. A shocking one in five adult Malaysians has diabetes.

And of course, there are a lot of decaying teeth, especially among children, as my dentist regularly sees, which was what led to his display.

Our sugar consumption is one of the highest in the world, data from the Food and Agricultural Association show. And a major part of that sugar comes from drinks. Tea, coffee, chocolate drinks and sweetened condensed milk are big contributors towards our sugar intake, a review article published in the Asia-Pacific Journal Of Clinical Nutrition found.

The article, by Malaysian and Singaporean researchers, also highlights research that found nine out of 10 primary school children in Selangor drink canned or bottled drinks weekly, while almost half of preschoolers, aged five to six years, have sweet drinks daily.

How can we allow this? Do we really want to plan a future of more insulin injections and kidney dialysis machines?

Plenty of damage control measures are possible, including a ban on advertising sweet foods and drinks to children, marketing controls, a ban on sugary drink sales in schools – and for heaven’s sake, let’s put a limit on sugar levels in baby formula.

There’s another control measure that a World Health Organisation (WHO) report earlier this month urged countries to take on: a sugary drinks tax.

Hike the price of sugary drinks with a tax of 20% or more and consumption goes down, the WHO report says.

And that, in turn, brings down obesity and disease rates, and of course tooth decay, which ultimately saves us huge health care costs. And suffering.

Why drinks? Because they’re consumed often and not seen as a treat. And because they’re often just “empty calories”.

It’s not a novel idea. Chile, Finland, France and Mexico are already doing it. Portugal will start in 2017, and will use the money from taxes for the public health service.

Britain, too, after pressure from celebrities such as chef Jamie Oliver, plans to start a tax in 2018.

The delay will allow manufacturers to adjust sugar levels in their products. Just this month, PepsiCo said it will cut at least 100 calories from two-thirds of its drinks by 2025.

The British tax will vary by sugar content, with a higher band for sweeter drinks like sodas. It will not include pure fruit juices and milk-based drinks, though. The half a billion pounds raised by the tax will be put towards primary school sports.

Considering we already have a hefty “sin” tax on alcohol and also on cigarettes, a tax on sugary drinks is only logical. And the tax must include sweetened condensed milk, a key culprit in sweetening our diets. You never know, it might eventually result in a tweak to our teh tarik so it actually tastes better.


Mangai Balasegaram writes mostly on health, but also delves into anything on being human. She has worked with international public health bodies and has a Masters in public health.