AMA Vice-President Dr Danielle McMullen said the government should consider any effort to boost nutritional knowledge and encourage healthier eating.
“When I was in college, my roommates once decided to weigh all the sugar they had consumed the night before, playing video games and drinking Coke. It was something obscene like two kilos of sugar,” McMullen says.
“It was a stark visual reminder of the amount of sugar in their diet during an average night of relaxing at home, playing video games. Even they were appalled, as well-educated young people with some health literacy. .
McMullen, a GP in Sydney’s Newtown, says health literacy is a bigger issue for Australians facing socio-economic disadvantage and among poorer communities with less nutritious diets.
Data from the Australian Institute of Health and Wellness shows that two out of three adults are overweight (36%) or obese (31%); 75% men and 60% women. About a quarter of children under 17 are overweight or obese.
The food and drink industry is fiercely opposed to any move to introduce a sugar tax, but groups such as the Public Health Association and the Australian Medical Council want the idea explored.
Countries like the UK, France, India, Thailand, South Africa and Mexico have heeded calls from the World Health Organization for taxes on sugary drinks, including soft drinks, energy drinks and sports drinks.
The price signals will be discussed at the International Congress on Obesity, which is due to open in Melbourne on Tuesday.
McMullen says money raised from a sugar tax could be directed to health programs to manage chronic disease, school-based nutrition programs and education in migrant communities.
“It would make a difference, especially for our most vulnerable patients who are at risk with junk sugary drinks,” she says.
“There are people for whom a small price difference makes a difference at the supermarket, and anything that encourages healthy choices in drinks, or even tap water, is a very good thing.”
Mexico introduced a volumetric tax regime on sugary drinks in 2014. Prices increased by around 11% for some popular soft drinks, which helped reduce the purchase and consumption of sugary drinks.
Peer-reviewed academic research shows that the poorest households changed their buying behavior the most and that around 240,000 cases of obesity in adults and children are expected to be prevented over a decade, along with a reduction of associated health costs.
In September, British Prime Minister Liz Truss said her government would scrap Britain’s special taxes on soft drinks and end a series of anti-obesity measures, due to the worsening cost of living crisis. .
Introduced in 2018, the tax is 18 pence (30¢) per liter for drinks containing five to eight grams of sugar per 100ml and 24 pence (34¢) per liter for those containing more than 8 grams of sugar per 100 ml.
A series of obesity control policies are being reviewed, including a ban on junk food advertising on TV before 9 p.m. In May, planned rules banning “buy one, get one free” offers on foods and drinks high in fat, salt or sugar were postponed until 2023.
“[People] I don’t want the government telling them what to eat,” Truss said during his campaign to become prime minister.
But the plan has encountered difficulties and legal and parliamentary procedural obstacles are expected.
The tax raises around £300m ($530m) a year and has led to a reduction of up to 30% in the sugar content of many soft drinks. Proceeds went to school breakfast programs and measures to promote physical activity, especially in poorer communities.
In the year since the tax took effect, it has resulted in a 10% drop in the amount of sugar consumed by households in soft drinks.
Ophthalmologist James Muecke, former Australian of the Year, used the platform of his 2020 honor to campaign for a sugar tax. He cited a poll that showed 77% of Australians supported the concept, especially if the money was used to reduce health inequalities.
He estimates that a 20% tax on sugary drinks alone would save $2 billion in health costs nationwide. Muecke believes income, jobs and votes were behind politicians’ reluctance to consider a sugar tax for Australia.
One of the reasons the Coalition has been unwilling to consider such a tax is the downstream impact on farmers, a key constituency, including for Nationals. After a disputed election campaign on taxation, the Federal Labor Party is so far unwilling to consider further measures, beyond a crackdown on multinationals.
About 80% of Australian sugar is exported, and Muecke says the expected 1% drop in demand would lead to the product being marketed elsewhere.
“The industry is adapting; indeed, soft drink companies have seen the writing on the wall and have been producing bottled water and sugar-free or low-sugar varieties for years,” he says.
The Australian Beverages Council and the country’s four biggest drinks companies have agreed to accelerate the reduction of sugar in their products, a government-backed self-regulatory scheme.
“While sugar may play a role in poor diet, the causes of overweight, obesity and related chronic diseases are very complex, and key determinants include, but are not limited to, interactions between factors genetic, metabolic, cultural, environmental, socioeconomic, and behavioral factors,” the council states.
A critic of price signals, the Australian Food and Grocery Council regularly points to steps taken in Denmark in 2012 to cancel a tax on foods based on their saturated fat content. Representing food manufacturers, he argues that tax measures aimed at changing behavior are ineffective and unpopular.
Daisy Coyle, a practicing dietitian with the George Institute for Global Health, wants the federal government to consider a sugar tax as it plans to include added sugars on food labels.
“It’s a no-brainer,” she said AF weekend.
“In Australia we tax alcohol and tobacco because we know they are bad for our health. Sugary drinks are really the same. They are harmful to health, they do not contain any valuable nutrients but contain huge amounts of sugar.
Coyle says adults between the ages of 18 and 24 are among the biggest consumers of sugary drinks.
“With a tax on sugary drinks, we are really trying to target that specific product and nothing else. It’s not about what’s in and what’s not. This category does far more harm than good.