FRESH demands for a 20 per cent tax on sugary drinks to help tackle Australia’s growing obesity epidemic have been rejected by farm industry groups and politicians.
Federal Agriculture and Water Resources Minister Barnaby Joyce has led the charge saying the latest sugar tax push - proposed in a new report by expert public health professionals from 34 groups - represents the thin end of the wedge, leading to costly, government intervention on other farm products, potentially deemed as “immoral”.
Mr Joyce said taxing sugary drinks was a perpetual proposal raised by “those who believe that self-control is not the best dietary mechanism”.
“If you don’t want to get fat, stop eating so much and get out and go for a walk,” he said.
“This is just going to be a tax that makes things dearer and after we finish with a sugar tax, why not have a fat-tax or a cholesterol tax?
“The ATO (Australian Tax Office) is not going to make you healthier; it’s just going to make you poorer.
“Whatever they decide is immoral, they’ll tax.”
Mr Joyce said the mooted toll on sugary drinks to make them more expensive was also a tax on food substances and warned “they’ll start taxing foods”.
“What about unsweetened orange juice?” he said.
“It may have some sugar in it so maybe we should tax that?
“If you let these things get a head of steam you’ll end up with a tax you can bet your life on it, and you know who will pay the tax - poor people.
“And do you think they’re going to stop drinking soft drinks? No.
“Sugar by itself is not unhealthy but if you have too much sugar of course that’s unhealthy.”
Asked if he thought the sugar tax was a good idea, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said “No, I don't”.
“I think we’ve got enough taxes and there are enough imposts on us all when we go to the supermarket and we go shopping,” he said.
“The other thing is too where do you draw the line?
“There’s a lot of sugar in a bottle of orange juice so are you saying you’re going to put a tax on that?
“I think you are better off focusing on the health message to get that across so that people are more aware of what they’re eating and the consequences of what they’re eating.
“But also exercise - you know, get up and walk.”
But Mr Turnbull also said “obesity is the next big challenge” in terms of public health.
“With smoking at one level it is easy - cigarettes are very addictive,” he said.
“But it is also a straightforward message because you say there is no safe amount of smoking.
“There’s no reasonable smoking - don't smoke, full stop, cut it out.
“With obesity it is much more complex because you’re not saying to people don't have a slice of chocolate, don't have a cake, don't sit back on the couch and watch television.
“You are saying eat right, eat more healthy foods, eat more fresh fruits - of course they don't have the GST on them of course so that is a tax benefit - do more exercise.
“So it’s a more complex story but it is critically important because….obesity is the next big health challenge in terms of a preventable cause of ill health.”
Opposition leader Bill Shorten said sugar was being “rammed down the throats of our kids” and was leading to obesity problems but “By the same token, Australians pay enough tax at the moment”.
“I don't believe that another tax is going to be what Australians need or want at this stage,” he said.
“I do think we need to encourage our kids to exercise, we need to make sure they aren't getting the wrong advertising, especially at times kids are watching TV and on the internet.
“It is not a simple problem.
“I know the parents are pulling their hair out (but) I don't think a new tax will be the answer.”
But Australian Greens leader Richard Di Natale said his party was “fully supportive of this range of evidence-based measures put forward by the experts today”.
“We have long supported a ban on junk food advertising to children, moves to get people more active and a tax on sugar sweetened beverages, because the evidence shows they work,” he said.
“We will move to establish a parliamentary inquiry before the end of the year into the rise of obesity in Australia, particularly in children, and to examine the policy responses to best combat it.
“Countries around the world, from Ireland to the UK, Hungary to Mexico, are listening to the calls of health experts, researchers, doctors and the broader public as they implement similar sugar sweetened beverage taxes.
“Australia needs to listen to the evidence, and act.
“We call on the government and opposition to urgently get behind these solutions to help protect our kids from a lifetime of chronic illness.”
Urging the federal government to place a health levy on sugary drinks to increase the price by 20pc was one of eight action recommendations set out in the 20-page “Tipping the Scales” report released by the Australian Obesity Prevention Consensus.
Other suggestions included calling for legislation to implement time-based restrictions on exposure of children under 16 years of age to unhealthy food and drink marketing on free-to-air television until 9:30pm.
It also said the Health Star Rating System should be made mandatory by July 2019 and urged the development of a comprehensive national active travel strategy to promote walking, cycling and use of public transport.
“Australia’s health, wellbeing and productivity is being threatened by an epidemic of weight-related illness,” the report said.
“Most Australian adults (63.4pc) are above a healthy weight with 27.9pc obese and 35.5pc overweight.
“More than a quarter (27pc) of Australian children are overweight or obese.
“If current trends continue, there will be approximately 1.75 million deaths in people over the age of 20 years caused by overweight and obesity between 2011 and 2050, with an average loss of 12 years of life for each Australian who dies before the age of 75 years.
“If obesity rates could be halted in this period, half a million premature deaths could be prevented.
“As far as the burden of disease, the combined burden of diet and weight are now greater than that posed by tobacco smoking.
“The total annual cost of overweight and obesity in 2011–12 has been estimated to be $8.6 billion, representing $3.8bn in direct costs and $4.8bn in indirect costs.”
The report said it was estimated that in 2009, food companies spent $402 million and $149m respectively on food and non-alcoholic drink advertising in Australia.
“Food companies target children through ubiquitous advertising across a number of different platforms and use a variety of integrated techniques,” it said.
“Children are particularly vulnerable to advertising as a child’s capacity to comprehend and critically interpret advertising messages develops over time.”
The report said the 20pc sugar tax levy could apply to all non-alcoholic beverages with added sugar, such as sugar-sweetened soft drinks, energy drinks, fruit drinks, sports drinks and cordials, potentially excluding 100pc fruit juices and milk-based drinks.
“A recent Australian study found that increasing the price of sugary drinks by 20pc could reduce consumption by 12.6pc,” it said.
“This reduction in consumption has the potential to generate a decline in the prevalence of obesity of 2.7pc among men, and 1.2pc among women, and could reduce the number of cases of Type Two diabetes by 800 per annum.
“The study also estimated that the levy could raise revenue in excess of $400 million per year, even when taking into account changes in consumption in response to the tax.”
Minister Greg Hunt says sugar tax not supported
But a spokesperson for Health and Sport Minister Greg Hunt ruled out the sugar tax and said the Turnbull government was taking action to tackle the challenge of obesity and encouraged all Australians to live healthy lives.
“As the minister has said on many occasions before, the government does not support a new tax on sugar to address this issue,” the spokesperson said.
“And unlike the Labor Party, we don't believe increasing the family grocery bill at the supermarket is the answer to this challenge.
“We already have programs in place to educate, support and encourage Australians to adopt and maintain a healthy diet and to lead an active life.
“Obesity and poor diets are complex public health issue with multiple contributing factors, requiring a community-wide approach as well as behaviour change by individuals.
“As agreed with all state and territories, the Health Star Rating system is currently in a period of review, which includes looking at mandatory implementation.
This area is a shared responsibility and state and territory governments need to continue their investment in preventive health measures.”
A joint statement on the report by the Australian Food & Grocery Council, Australian Beverages Council, CANEGROWERS, Australian Sugar Milling Council, Australian Sugar Industry Alliance Australian Association of National Advertisers, Australian Industry Group and Australasian Association of Convenience Stores said it wasn’t beneficial to “blame or tax a single component of the diet”.
“The Australian retail, farming, grocery and beverage sectors contribute more than $311bn to the economy each year and account for approximately 15pc of the total workforce in Australia,” it said.
“Our industries acknowledge that obesity is a serious and complex public health problem in Australia, with no single cause or quick fix solution.
“We understand 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.
“A new tax is not the way to make our nation healthier.
“A sugar tax would be damaging for Australia’s sugar industry, which is an important regional employer in Queensland and northern NSW and would hit consumers with higher prices.
“It would also have a damaging effect on Australia’s food and beverage processing sector, which is the nation’s largest manufacturing sector, directly employing over 300,000 Australians.
“A sugar tax internationally has not reduced obesity and a similar fat tax in Denmark has cost jobs, increased prices to consumers while and failing to reduce obesity.”
The statement said the industry continued to demonstrate “strong compliance” with self-regulatory food and beverage advertising codes which have virtually removed all non-core food advertising primarily directed to children.
“As a food supply sector, we recognise that we have a role to play in improving the food choices available to all Australians,” it said.
“We welcome a conversation on establishing a broad and holistic approach to tackling obesity.”
Flipping burgers at Maccas without a blindfold
NSW Liberal Democratic Senator David Leyonhjelm said the sugar tax was a “nanny-state policy, wheeled out with nauseating monotony” and was “just another excuse for a tax, dressed up as a health issue”.
“Nanny rummages through our fridges and shopping trolleys and, with wagging finger, tells us we need to give more money to the government for our own good,” he said but stressed Australia’s growing obesity problem was a serious issue.
“The simple fact is there is no accepted evidence that sugar taxes cut long-term soft drink consumption or reduce body mass index, or have any marked effect on rates of obesity, diabetes and heart disease.
“The only thing that will get smaller if we make just one unhealthy product more expensive is the hip pocket and those on low incomes will be hardest hit.”
Of calls to enforce further restrictions on television advertising, Senator Leyonhjelm was equally unimpressed.
“We are now facing the farcical prospect of teenagers enjoying access to blood, guts, gore and sex on television while being denied the sight of a hamburger on the grounds it is too unseemly for young eyes,” he said.
“That is unless they are one of thousands of teenagers across the country out earning money by flipping burgers at their local Maccas, presumably without a blindfold.”
Queensland Nationals Senator Barry O’Sullivan said Australia’s $2 billion sugar industry had “once again” found itself in the firing line as public policy makers searched for a “scapegoat” for the nation’s obesity issues.
He said the new report released today had again overlooked measures that encouraged taking personal responsibility for health concerns.
“Whenever public policy makers are looking for a scapegoat for obesity problems, sugar is always at the top of the list and is routinely singled out and undermined,” he said in rejecting calls for a tax on sugary drinks.
“This is a nonsense and just Big Brother politics that Australians find justifiably concerning.
“No one doubts that tackling obesity is an important social and health issue in our community, but it cannot be at the expense of one of Queensland’s most important agricultural exports.
“The Queensland sugar industry is a $2 billion market, which exports all around the world and supports countless communities along the state’s rural coastline.
“We will not take a backward step in opposing any public policy proposal that undermines this industry and the communities it feeds.”
But Professor of Epidemiology and Equity in Public Health at Deakin University, Anna Peeters, said the 34 groups behind the report were refusing to let governments simply sit back and watch as growing numbers of Australians developed life-threatening weight and diet-related health problems.
“For too long we have been sitting and waiting for obesity to somehow fix itself,” she said.
“In the obesogenic environment in which we live, this is not going to happen.
“Obesity poses such an immense threat to Australia’s physical and economic health that it needs its own, standalone prevention strategy if progress is to be made.
“There are policies which have been proven to work in other parts of the world and have the potential to work here, but they need to be implemented as part of a comprehensive approach by governments - and they need to be implemented now.
“More than thirty leading organisations have agreed on eight priorities needed to tackle obesity in Australia.
“We would like to work with the federal government to tackle this urgent issue and integrate these actions as part of a long-term coordinated approach.”
Sugar tax proven successful overseas
Groups that endorsed the report’s calls to action include the Australian Chronic Disease Prevention Alliance, Diabetes Australia the Consumers Health Forum of Australia, and the National Rural Health Alliance.
The report said there were a number of different fiscal models that had been used internationally to increase the price of sugary drinks, with the UK announcing plans to introduce a soft drink levy in 2018.
“This levy will be imposed at the manufacturer or importer level to encourage companies to reformulate by reducing the amount of added sugar in the drinks that they sell,” it said.
“In January 2014, the Mexican government implemented an excise tax on sugar-sweetened beverages of approximately 10pc as an anti-obesity measure.
“Evaluation data demonstrates that the tax was generally passed on to consumers.
“As a result, purchases of taxed beverages decreased by 5.5pc in 2014 and 9.7pc in 2015, yielding an average reduction of 7.6pc over two years.
“There was also a 2.1pc increase in the amount of untaxed beverages purchased.
“The policy has had the most impact in lower socio-economic groups.
“The success of the Mexican experience demonstrates that even a relatively small levy on sugary drinks can result in a noticeable reduction in demand.”