Time for a tax on sugary drinks

| July 10, 2018

As a federal election looms, now is the time for coordinated, strategic and innovative action against sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs) from a “unified, agile collective” committed to improving Australia’s health and nutrition, according to the authors of a Perspective published online by the Medical Journal of Australia.

Dr Alessandro Demaio from the University of Melbourne, who is chief executive officer of the EAT Foundation, and Ms Alexandra Jones, a research associate and PhD candidate at the George Institute for Global Health and the Charles Perkins Centre at the University of Sydney, wrote that the costs to Australia of diet-related diseases were adding up.

“Two-thirds of adults and one-quarter of Australian children are overweight or obese, with higher rates in low socio-economic, rural and Indigenous populations,” they wrote.

“Australians are now much more likely to be obese than their parents were at the same age. At age 2-5 years, 8.8% of children in 2014-2015 were obese, compared with 4.2% two decades earlier … more obesity-related chronic conditions at younger ages will likely bring cascading increases in health care costs.”

With 30 countries, the Spanish Catalan region and seven cities in the United States now adopting SSB taxes Demaio and Jones suggested that “continuing political inertia requires renewed, strategic action to leverage growing public and expert support”.

“It is time the price of SSBs at the register more accurately reflected the true cost of their consumption on Australia’s health and economy,” they wrote.

Political inertia and successful lobbying from the beverage industry were in contrast to public interest in action on sugar, with a January 2018 poll finding that the majority of Australians — including 57% of conservative voters — already supported a tax on SSBs.

“As in Mexico, media surrounding the new levy highlights the importance of strategic engagement with communication and media experts to frame policies in a way that raises awareness of policy benefits to build public support,” Demaio and Jones wrote.

“Consistent and coordinated messages from trusted voices, including public-interest organisations and high-profile individuals such as Jamie Oliver in the UK, appear key to translating scientific evidence into policy action for public good.

“As a federal election looms, now is the moment for coordinated, strategic and innovative action from a unified, agile collective committed to improving Australia’s health. With the true costs mounting, the science in our favour, the public on side, and a growing chorus of global action, 2018 can and must be the historic year Australia puts people before profits.

“It is time we adopted a tax on SSBs.”