Australia reignites debate for a sugar tax, but lacks government support

11 January 2018 Sugar

The Australian Medical Association (AMA) has called for a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages to be introduced as a matter of priority to tackle obesity, despite opposition from food and drink industry representatives and politicians.

"Improving the nutrition and eating habits of Australians must become a priority for all levels of government. We need to drag government to action with a variety of measures. One of the easiest to implement, and one of the simplest to call for, is a tax on sugar-sweetened drinks. We don’t think that’s the silver bullet to fix our obesity crisis, but it’s certainly part of the jigsaw."
Dr Michael Gannon, President of the Australian Medical Association

In 2011-12, Australians consumed an average of 60g of free sugars per day – with half of this coming from sugary drinks. The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends limiting daily intake of free sugars to less than 10% of a person’s total energy intake (or 50g). Consuming more than 60g of free sugars per day increases the rate of dental caries in teenagers and adults.

One country’s sour experience with sugar

In a recently published position paper, AMA lists a series of recommendations for the government to improve the nutrition and eating habits of Australians. It highlights the need to support improved nutrition education and food literacy programmes, mandatory food fortification, price signals to influence consumption, and restrictions on food and beverage advertising to children.

The paper also calls for water to be promoted and provided as the default beverage option, and for fresh, minimally processed foods (such as fruit and vegetables) to be affordable for people of all incomes. The health minister however has made it clear that the government will not support a sugar tax. A 20% tax had already been proposed in Australia in 2017, but Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull rejected it on the grounds that the country already had enough taxes.

The trends to follow

To date, 26 countries have introduced a sugar tax on food and drinks and the debate is ongoing in many more countries. In Mexico, a study found a 5% drop in the sales of sugary-drinks after the first year that the tax was introduced, followed by a 9% decline in the second year. In 2016, WHO made headlines when they backed taxing sugary drinks by 20% or more to help reduce sugar consumption.

Reducing sugar consumption will have a significant impact on helping to curb the global epidemic of dental caries. Sugar is the primary factor responsible for the development of dental caries. Sugary drinks (such as soda, energy and sports drinks) are a main source of ‘empty calories’, which contain high levels of energy and no nutritional value. Excessive consumption of sugar from snacks, processed foods, and drinks is one of a few major factors causing worldwide increases in oral disease, cardiovascular disease, cancer and diabetes.

FDI supports the promotion and implementation of sugar-reduction policies as part of a healthy diet to tackle the burden of dental caries and the risk of other noncommunicable diseases. Comprehensive and integrated action, led by governments, is necessary to win the battle against these diseases.

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