Sugar tax: Australia needs to hit a new sweet spot

The leaders of our two main political parties are resisting calls from most health experts to introduce a tax on sugary drinks. They might give a thought to the thousands of lives saved as a result of earlier public health measures introduced in the face of loud opposition.

Mandatory car seat belts, random breath testing and anti-tobacco laws were opposed for years by those who saw them as an unwarranted intrusion into our personal space.

Now who would argue against them? These measures have saved thousands of lives, prevented tens of thousands of serious injuries and ill-health and reduced health budgets by billions.

Australia has often led the way in acting to unlock the benefits of preventive health measures.

Yet Australia is falling behind when it comes to effective action to stem the swelling impact of obesity. Countries where sugar taxes have been introduced or planned include France, Mexico, and the United Kingdom some states in the United States.

International efforts to fight obesity will be a discussed at the World Congress of Public Health being held in Melbourne this week, April 3 to April 7, see World Congress on Public Health 2017 It is time for Australia to restore its position as a leading campaigner on public health and step up measures to address the obesity crisis.

The campaign for a tax on sugary drinks, and for more effective measures to curb unhealthy diets, has widespread support - from the World Health Organisation which recommends a 20 per cent of higher tax on sugary drinks, from the leaders of Australia’s specialist medical colleges, from health economists and from the community at large. That includes a clear majority of voters, as several opinions polls have shown in recent years.

A sugary drink tax is not the only measure we need to take. As three leadings groups on the issue, NCDFree, the George Institute and the Obesity Policy Coalition have asserted, the sugar sweetened beverage  tax would provide a catalyst and focus to inspire other policy action while also unlocking revenue and savings to invest in broader policy initiatives.

Most people see the effects of our fat and sugar-rich diet and sedentary life style and accept we must do more as a nation if we are not to condemn ourselves and our children to worse health outcomes and shorter lives than our parents.

What is needed is a comprehensive campaign to challenge our obesogenic culture to ensure the issue gets momentum in the lead up to the next federal election. That campaign should also include firmer curbs to the advertising and promotion of unhealthy food to children, whether on TV, social media or through sponsorship of sporting events. And we need to do more to encourage routine and incidental exercise through urban planning and public transport that reduces car dependency.

The Prime Minister and the new Health Minister have promised action on preventive health policies in Australia. That’s welcome after some years of meagre activity on obesity despite the $5.2 billion extra health and welfare costs obesity generates in Australia.

The preventive health announcement prompted hopes that the Government would take serious action against  obesity, our most serious, avoidable health concern.

Regrettably the Government to date has declined the gathering chorus in favour of a sugary drink tax as part of a more comprehensive approach.

It is troubling that in the face of overwhelming support from health experts, the two identifiable groups resisting or not supporting a sugar tax are:  politicians from both sides of politics, and the food and drink industry.

It raises concerns that the people we vote for at election time are placing the interests of producers of unhealthy goods ahead of the health of the people who vote for them.

For years the food industry vigorously resisted the healthy food star rating system as all too hard. Now, just four years since its introduction, the same industry hails its “rapid uptake” as a practical example of why we need not take further action.

The industry leaders, after years of continuing to supply food and drinks with unhealthy levels of sugar, are now expressing their concern for consumers, arguing such a move would create financial stress for low income people.

Politicians raise the “nanny state” claim - that it is individuals, not governments, who should influence what they eat and drink.

Yet is it not a more disturbing form of  “nanny state”  which currently protects the manufacturers of unhealthy food from effective action by the state to protect public health?

The politicians and the food industry attempt to declare blithely that Australia should stick with the current approach of education and support for healthy eating and exercise. Often that focus tends to fall on physical inactivity as the key problem when in reality it is our over-consumption of fats, carbs and sugary drinks and foods that are the bigger problem.

It has now been three decades since governments began to talk, if not act, against obesity. There have been education campaigns and support for school-based activity and various other initiatives.

And all the while our girths have continued to expand.

It’s time for a change.


*A striking illustration of the impact that so many sugar-embedded food products can have on our bodies is shown in That Sugar Film which highlights the unhealthy level of sugars in what many people think are ‘healthy’ foods. That Sugar Film was screened recently on SBS TV.


About the author

Leanne Wells

Leanne Wells

Chief Executive of the Consumers Health Forum of Australia