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Australia should throw its weight behind a sugar tax

March 8, 2017

Australia should throw its weight behind a sugar tax

The push for a levy on sugar-sweetened beverages is gaining momentum, with good reason - evidence shows it would help to reduce Australia's obesity epidemic and the flow-on increase in chronic disease burden.

Sugar-sweetened beverages are energy-dense, nutrient-poor and a major contributor to obesity and diet-related illness, particularly among children and socially disadvantaged groups who already experience higher levels of preventable illness.

Levies on sugar-sweetened beverages are already paying off in countries such as Mexico and Chile, where significant numbers of consumers are switching to healthier alternatives such as water.

And if you're thinking that these countries face obesity crises that are foreign to Australia, think again. Despite our (largely historical) reputation as a fit, sporty nation, Australia is among the five fattest members of the 35 developed countries that make up the international Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

Even countries with less alarming obesity rates than Australia, such as France and Finland, have introduced a levy. They're ahead of the curve; we're falling behind.

All of the major independent public health organisations in Australia, and key medical groups such as the Australian Medical Association and the Council of Australian Medical Colleges, are calling for a levy. The Australian Chronic Disease Alliance, which comprises Cancer Council, the Heart Foundation, Stroke Foundation, Diabetes Australia and Kidney Health Australia, has also supported the move.

Even Australia's Council of Social Services has been proactive in supporting the levy. This is significant. In the past, social welfare groups have been concerned that tax-based approaches to promote healthier lifestyles punish disadvantaged groups. Now, there is increased recognition that tax-based measures can be a win-win -- encouraging behaviours that improve people's health and encouraging grocery buyers to shift their household budget away from sugary drinks, while raising revenue to fund health programs. In fact, an Australian study published last month found that the impact on overall grocery costs could be minimised, while the potential public health gains are significant.

The population health and economic benefits of taxing unhealthy products are well founded. Tobacco excise in Australia has been shown to be the single most effective measure (among many) to have reduced smoking prevalence from half the population 60 years ago to 12.8 percent and falling today. We understand that tobacco is a special case, killing two in three of its long-term users. Nonetheless, the principles of a targeted tax still apply.

And, unlike tobacco, which is gradually costing the community less as fewer people smoke, the cost burden of obesity is rising and was estimated to include $3.8 billion in direct healthcare costs alone in Australia in 2011-12.

To put this in context, Australia's Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS), which subsidises prescription medicines, is costing the Australian taxpayer around $10 billion a year and rising. Government officials are grappling with how to control these escalating costs, with an ageing population and an increasing need to subsidise high-cost medicines for diseases such as cancer. On population ageing and growth trends alone, cancer incidence in Australia is expected to increase from 130,000 last year to 170,000 cases in 2025.

Yet we have a concerning number of the population guzzling cheap, unhealthy drinks, setting themselves up for a lifetime of poor health, which will be managed to a large extent by publicly funded healthcare. This includes one in six Australian teenage boys who are loading up on an extra 5.2 kilograms a year in sugar from soft drink consumption alone (that's one litre of soft drink per week). Meanwhile, one in four of all of Australian children are overweight or obese -- a trend we have not been able to reverse because it has been in the policy too-hard basket.

We know that there are 11 types of cancer linked to obesity. Cancer Council research shows that almost 4000 cancer cases each year are linked to weight alone. Another 1,800 cases a year are linked to physical inactivity and 7000 Australian cancer cases each year are linked to poor diet. If we don't act now these numbers will continue to grow.

A tax on sugar-sweetened beverages is not the only solution, but the evidence is clear that it is part of the solution. History shows that waiting around for perfect approaches to problems that tick all the boxes leave us with 100 percent of nothing. The weight of history -- and the weight of our children -- show that it is time to act now.