News & Views

Momentum builds for soft-drink tax in Australia December 2016, Volume 26, Issue 5

Nyssa Skilton

Published 14 December 2016. doi:
Citation: Skilton N. Momentum builds for soft-drink tax in Australia. 2016;26(5):e2651665.

  • Citation

Momentum is building in Australia for the implementation of policy to reduce the harmful health effects of sugar, with major health groups now working together to push for a tax on soft drinks.

The Obesity Policy Coalition, together with the Global Obesity Centre (GLOBE) – a WHO Collaborating Center for Obesity Prevention – has led a process with leading Australian public health groups to develop a consensus position on national priorities for the federal government to address obesity. The statement will be launched early next year.

It will set out a clear strategy for public health policy with key recommendations including:

Growing number of countries taking action

Obesity Policy Coalition executive manager Jane Martin said soft-drink taxes were becoming the norm around the world, with 16 countries now having implemented or announced the measure.

“It’s something that’s gathering momentum in many countries, including countries like Australia,” Ms Martin said.

“I think the government can be confident that it’s going to work. The real-world evidence is very compelling, the scientific evidence is growing and the evidence of how the community responds is good.”

In November, the Grattan Institute issued a report that called for a tax on soft drinks to recoup some of the costs of obesity to the community.

The reported stated that an excise tax on the sugar in soft drinks was “the best, and simplest, tax option to recoup some of the third-party costs generated by obesity and reduce consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages”.

The report recommended a tax of 40 cents per 100 grams of sugar on nonalcoholic, water-based beverages that contain added sugar. It estimated that this would increase the price of a 2-litre bottle of soft drink by about 80 cents, raise about $500 million a year and reduce consumption of soft drink by about 15%.

Australian sugar and food industry responds

Industry representatives, including the Australian Beverages Council, the Australian Food & Grocery Council and the Australian Sugar Industry Alliance, responded with a media release headlined “Industry seeks constructive response to obesity”. Public health campaigners noted an apparent softening in language compared with previous responses, such as “Sugar reduction targets: unnecessary and unwarranted” in 2015 and “Soft drink tax: an exercise in futility” in March this year.

In its most recent media release, industry representatives said, “Our industries understand that obesity is a public health problem in Australia, and that it is appropriate for calls to be made for Australians to modify and improve their dietary intake. However, it is not beneficial to blame or tax a single component of the diet”.

In an earlier news article in Public Health Research & Practice, leading US academic Professor Marion Nestle discussed the pressures of ‘soft-drink politics’ and the importance of organising communities to press for taxes on soft drinks.

Matter of urgency

Also in November, a collaboration of Australia’s leading chronic disease researchers, clinicians and health organisations outlined targets for 2025 for the prevention and reduction of chronic diseases, in line with the global agenda set by the World Health Organization.

The collaboration recommended 10 priority policy actions to support Australia to meet these targets, with the first being to implement a 20% flat-rate tax as a health levy on sugar-sweetened beverages.

Rosemary Calder, director of the Australian Health Policy Collaboration, said, “We need to get the industry and government to the same table with health providers on this one issue and we need to do that as a matter of some urgency given the rising tide of obesity and diabetes in the country.

“It’s not sufficient for this to be managed in a slow and conservative manner, through discussion at the Food and Health Dialogue. It needs specific attention and implementation.”