‘Treat sugar like alcohol and tobacco’

3 minute read

Fresh debate has flared over a sugar tax, with obesity experts calling for urgent action


Fresh debate has flared over a sugar tax, with obesity experts calling for urgent action as new research emerges in favour of such an impost.

A tax on sugar-sweetened beverages was a logical extension of our approach to alcohol and tobacco taxes, Professor Stephen Colagiuri, director of the Boden Institute of Obesity, Nutrition, Exercise & Eating Disorders, said.

“Food products such as sugary sweetened beverages were not primarily developed to cause harm, but when harm is demonstrated, it is often denied or challenged by those with vested interests,” he wrote in a perspective published in the MJA.

“The excessive consumption of sugary sweetened beverages – a high energy-dense discretionary food with no nutritional benefit, which can harm health – cannot be justified.”

Just like speed restrictions and seat belts, individual freedoms could be curbed to remove health threats, he said.

Introducing such a tax would see Australia join at least 13 other countries that now have a “fat tax” on unhealthy foods or drinks.

Sugar-sweetened beverages had received the most attention because they were, by far, the biggest source of sugar in the Australian diet, Sydney nutrition and obesity expert Professor Timothy Gill said.

“The modelling, while it varies study to study, has consistently showed that the price signalling in sugar-sweetened beverages will result in a reduction in the consumption of those beverages, which can only be a good thing,” he said.

But a spokesperson from the government was adamant an additional tax would not be supported.

Current attempts aimed at voluntary individual action had failed, and mounting international evidence indicated a tax would shift people to healthier behaviours, Professor Colagiuri argued.

Mexico was an example of how it successfully reduced consumption of taxed beverages by 12% and increased alternatives, such as bottled water, by 4%, he said.

Now new modelling by Australian researchers adds to the weight of evidence, showing a sugar tax could avert 270,000 disability-adjusted life years, a gain of 1.2 years of healthy life for every 100 Australians.

Taxing salt, saturated fat and sugar-sweetened beverages would prevent 130,000, 97,000 and 12,000 disability-adjusted life years, respectively, the study found.

Taxes on this wider range of foods could save $3.4 billion in healthcare costs over the lifetimes of all Australians alive in 2010, the authors said.

This paper pushed the debate further by showing that the health benefits of a sugary drinks tax could be increased if it was combined with another healthy diet strategy, such as subsidies on fruit and vegetables, Professor Anna Peeters, professor of Epidemiology and Equity in Public Health at Global Obesity Centre, said.

MJA 2017; online 20 February 

PLOS Medicine 2017; online 14 February

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