News & Views

Soft-drink politics: advocacy in action

Nyssa Skilton

Published 15 April 2016. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.17061/phrp2621626
Citation: Skilton N. Soft-drink politics: advocacy in action. Public Health Res Pract. 2016;26(2):e2621626

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Australia can harness its existing advocacy framework to counter the marketing and political pressures of soft-drink companies, a leading US academic says.

Professor Marion Nestle, Paulette Goddard Professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University, said the three best strategies for health advocates to tackle `big soda’ were to organise communities to press for taxes on soft drinks, implement healthy school policies and restrict marketing to children.

“You need education campaigns, coupled with advocacy for policy change, starting from grass roots,” Professor Nestle told Public Health Research & Practice.

“You have the advocacy structure here already – witness antismoking advocacy. Use it.”

Big soda’s Achilles’ heel

Professor Nestle delivered a Sydney Ideas lecture in March on the politics of the soft-drink industry, and advocacy achievements in the US, before completing a two-month sabbatical with the University of Sydney’s Charles Perkins Centre.

She spoke about obesity being the “Achilles heel” of the soft-drink industry, and how sales of sugary drinks had decreased over the past 10 to 15 years in the US as consumers were made aware of their harmful effects on health.

In Australia, about one-third of the population drinks approximately one can of soft drink a day and, in 2006, Australia was one of the top 10 highest consumers of soft drink in the world, based on per capita consumption.

“Advocacy has brought the issue of marketing to public attention in a way that has made these companies quite vulnerable […] it’s a huge, huge issue for these companies,” Professor Nestle said.

Wins for public health advocates

In August 2015, the New York Times published a front-page article exposing financial ties between Coca-Cola and researchers who promoted the message that exercise was the best way to tackle obesity, while downplaying the role of poor diets.

Coca-Cola responded by promising to be more transparent, and in September announced that it had spent $US118.6 million on scientific research and ‘health and wellbeing partnerships’ since 2010, and published a list of the organisations, health experts and researchers it funds.

No such disclosures had been made in Australia. However, 10 days after Professor Nestle’s recent lecture and associated media coverage, Coca-Cola published the Australian version of its transparency list.

Professor Nestle said the most successful advocacy campaign so far had been in Berkeley, California, where residents overwhelmingly voted in favour of a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages.

The outcome, she said, was a result of advocates framing the issue as ‘Berkeley versus big soda’ rather than as a public health issue, and the mammoth community-based effort to canvass every neighbourhood and leave no door unknocked. It was also pledged that money raised from the tax would be spent on public health measures.

Sugar tax in Australia?

The soft-drink industry made headlines again in March when the UK Government announced a new sugar tax from April 2018 as part of its 2016 budget. The revenue from the tax, an expected £520m in its first year, will be spent on increasing sports funding in primary schools.

Celebrity chef Jamie Oliver, who lobbied for the tax, called on Australia and other countries to “pull your finger out” and adopt the levy. However the Australian Government confirmed a tax on soft drinks was not on its agenda.

A Department of Health spokesperson said: “The Australian Government’s approach is to actively educate, support and encourage Australian families to adopt and maintain a healthy diet rather than introducing regulation, such as taxes on sugar-sweetened beverages.”

The spokesperson said that the Minister for Rural Health, Fiona Nash, had convened the Healthy Food Partnership, which would establish five working groups from relevant industries and organisations to address three key themes: portion control, communication and education, and meal planning (making healthier choices easier).