Written by Benedict Weerasena, Fellow of Center for Market Education.

First published in The Malaysian Reserve on 23 July 2021

FOR every ringgit spent on Omega-3 dietary supplements as preventive daily intake levels, a significant RM4.50 can be saved in avoided coronary heart disease (CHD) costs.

This amounts to a total potential net savings of RM42.44 million on average per year in Malaysia, according to a recent policy paper published by The Centre for Market Education.

From extensive global research, investment in dietary supplements has been shown to reduce the risks of costly disease-related events among high-risk populations, while boosting workplace productivity and improving overall wellbeing.

Thus, expenses for nutrients and dietary supplements can be seen as a sort of “insurance investment” for the individual.

This is especially important as Malaysia’s healthcare costs continue to rise. In fact, Malaysia’s medical inflation rate is one of the highest across the Asia-Pacific region, according to the 2021 Global Medical Trend Report.

Underlying reasons for this surge include the growing prevalence of non-communicable diseases, leading to higher complexity treatments, and, consequently, higher hospital bills.

Take, for instance, CHD which is the No 1 cause of death in Malaysia, accounting for 15% of medically certified deaths. Regular dietary supplement consumption has been proven to reduce the risk factors of CHD and confer significant cost savings.

The healthcare costs saved through a daily intake of Omega-3 include potential avoided annual hospitalisation costs at RM14,203 per person.

Each individual also saves RM9,272 from avoiding financial costs arising from lost productivity as a result of absenteeism, presenteeism or premature death in persons of working age.

Moreover, the most significant savings is the avoidance of the burden of disease cost at RM135,359 per person. This factors in the intangible costs which relate to the value placed by individuals on the loss of healthy life, which is calculated using the cost of disability-adjusted life years.

In addition to that, the full utilisation of B vitamins such as folic acid, B6, and B12 among the target population will result in potential net savings of RM16.74 million.

For every RM1 spent on preventive intake of B vitamin supplements, RM1.72 can be saved through the avoidance of CHD-related costs.

The significant healthcare savings does indirectly explain why more Malaysian consumers are engaging in self-medication through dietary supplements.

In fact, there was a rise in demand for immune system-boosting products during the Covid-19 pandemic as consumers took an increasingly preventive approach to healthcare.

Besides CHD, Malaysia is experiencing an increasing trend for diabetes, in which one in five Malaysian adults had diabetes in 2019.

This highlights the importance of preventive measures to reduce both the tangible and intangible costs of diabetes on individuals, communities and the nation.

For the prevention of Type 2 diabetes mellitus, RM1.31 can be saved per RM1 spent on chromium picolinate.

This amounts to a total potential net cost savings of RM248.27 million. The estimated total annual cost avoided is RM25,450 per person, factoring in direct healthcare costs such as outpatient ambulatory care and hospitalisation, non-healthcare costs and the cost of absenteeism as a result of seeking treatment and hospitalisation activities.

Hence, the daily consumption of dietary supplements is a smart and cost-efficient approach that can be used by consumers, physicians and policymakers as a means to reduce individual and societal healthcare costs.

Moreover, there is a crucial need for policy reforms to encourage greater access and boost demand for dietary supplements, as a means to improve overall societal wellbeing.

First, the current import duty policy on the ingredients of dietary supplements needs to be revised, with free trade as the underlying principle.

Besides that, it is imperative to uphold the importance of freedom of choice with regard to healthcare decisions and individual courses of treatment, through ensuring that ingredients and final products related to dietary supplements are Sales and Service Tax exempt.

Next, a lifestyle tax relief for individuals for the purchase of dietary supplements up to a limit of RM1,500 per year should be introduced, considering how tax reliefs nudge in favour of healthy behaviours.

More importantly, a limited and targeted subsidy strategy towards vulnerable groups can be considered, coupled with an end-of-subsidy monitoring plan; instead of overarching subsidies which creates a negative dependence mentality.

Finally, federal and local governments should work together with supplement producers and related NGOs to expand education initiatives as an effective long-term strategy to promote dietary supplementation.