MARK HARRIS. Sugar tax to tackle obesity: an update.

Jan 10, 2018

In 2016 I wrote about the call for a sugar tax, especially on sugar sweetened drinks, to address Australia’s obesity problem.  What has happened since then? 

Unfortunately, there no significant improvements in obesity in the Australian population: 28% of adults were obese and 26% of children and adolescents were overweight or obese in 2014/5 (   Despite increased interest in the influence of genetic and epigenetic factors and bacterial “microbiome” in our intestines, we still think that imbalance between energy taken in and used up in physical activity and other physiological processes is largely responsible for weight gain.  Over time this can lead to overweight and obesity and we know that this is hard to reverse because the body tends to defend our new heavier “normal” weight and drive us to regain any weight loss (in a variety of ways).  This difficulty has spawned a large weight loss industry which, at a population level, is clearly not succeeding (although profits are healthy).

The priority is still to prevent weight gain in the first place, especially in children, adolescents and younger adults.  There is no one thing that needs to be done.  However, sugar sweetened drinks are an obvious place to start.  They have no or little nutritional value.  The Cancer Council of Australia and  Obesity Policy Coalition (which brings together the Cancer Council of Victoria, Diabetes Victoria and Global Obesity Centre at Deakin) have both put out policy briefs of the subject.  Modelling suggests that a 20% levy would reduce consumption by 12.6% and that this would have small impacts on obesity rates.  Taxes on sugar sweetened non-alcoholic beverages (SSBs) have been introduced in California, Mexico, Chile, Brunei and Thailand.  Analysis of data from Chile suggests that a price increase resulted in reduced demand for SSBs and increased demand for water.

So what has happened on the political front? The Greens webpage states they will “introduce a Private Senator’s Bill to give effect to a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages into the Senate by the end of 2017.” The Federal government however is opposed to a tax describing it as a “nanny state” response.  Labor has stated that it has no plans to introduce a tax.  This has led to some health groups (such as the RACGP) calling for a pragmatic shift to other approaches.  The problem is that other effective public health strategies such as bans on advertising to children, restricting availability (from schools, workplaces, health facilities, vending machines etc), and regulation of the content of foods also face strong opposition especially from industry groups.  No doubt there will be more debate in the coming year with the UK scheduled to introduce a 20%  tax on soft drinks with a sugar content over 5g per 100ml (most soft drink has over 10gm per 100ml).

Professor Mark Harris is from the Centre for Primary Health Care and Equity, UNSW.

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