BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN – The Ministry of Health is drafting new laws to regulate advertising of unhealthy foodstuff and drinks directed at children, its minister said.

During the 16th Legislative Council session on Thursday, Health Minister YB Dato Seri Setia Dr Hj Mohd Isham Hj Jaafar said the “Code of Responsible Advertisement of Food and Beverages to Children” is being drafted.

“As advised by the World Health Organization, it will be carried out in phases. This will be shared with relevant government agencies and disseminated to the public in phases by this year,” said the minister.

He said the food and advertising industries have been involved in discussions of the draft, which started in 2018.

The minister was responding to YB Iswandy Ahmad’s queries on whether there are plans to regulate the advertising of fast food franchises and whether a tax on fast food is being considered.

Import of high-sugar drinks falls after introduction of tax

YB Dato Dr Hj Isham said his ministry is also studying the possibility of introducing a tax on non-staple food and beverages that are high in sugar or sodium, such as sauces; crisps and syrups.

After the success of introducing tax on sugar-sweetened beverages, he said his ministry and  Ministry of Finance and Economy are reviewing the possibility of taxing non-staple food and beverages that are high in sugar or sodium and contain little or no nutrients.

Since Brunei imposed the tax on sugary drinks in 2017, the minister said a survey on supermarkets showed an increased 50 percent presence of beverages that are either unsweetened or contain small amounts of sugar.

“This kind of change is very encouraging because it contributes to a more conducive environment where we are able to make healthier choices in selecting beverages,” he added.

Figures from the Royal Customs and Excise Department showed that imports of sugary drinks declined 8.7 per cent in the fiscal year 2018/2019 compared to the previous year.

YB Dato Dr Hj Isham said imports of bottled water and fresh milk rose 40 percent and 11 percent respectively.

The sugary drink tax imposes a fee of $4 per 100 litres for drinks with a sugar content of 6g (or more) per 100ml.

The minister said food and beverage manufacturers will be given a grace period to take steps in reducing sugar and salt content in their products once an import duty tax is introduced on other non-staple food and beverages that are high in sugar or sodium.

Crackdown on deceptive health claims

The minister added that the government is also reviewing existing regulations to clamp down on misleading health advertisements.

YB Dato Dr Hjh Mohd Isham said anybody who is advertising their health products as beneficial must provide credible scientific evidence.

“Otherwise, they may be prosecuted. We are currently looking into this in different aspects to try to improve our laws,” he said, adding that health products must be backed by “statistically significant” results.

The minister was responding to YB Khairunnisa Hj Ash’ari’s question on the regulation of exorbitant “miracle products boasting health claims”, such as compression socks that claim to heal gout and ointments claiming to cure cancer.

YB Dato Dr Hj Mohd Isham said, “There are products that claim to cure a variety of ailments. This is an important area in which we must improve our public health literacy. The public must truly understand how diseases and medicine play their roles”.

He added that the ministry strives to ensure the public are not easily swayed and deceived by these products and claims.

“Placebo works in various ways. Not everyone will improve in the same manner as each individual is different. Each individual is his own ecosystem.

“This is how modern medicine works. Just because one person is cured by something, it may not necessarily work for another,” he said.