The time for a sugar tax is now

9 July 2018
As a federal election looms, now is the time for coordinated, strategic and innovative action to improve Australia's health according to the authors of a Perspective article published in the Medical Journal of Australia today.

“It is time the price of sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs) at the register more accurately reflected the true cost of their consumption on Australia’s health and economy,” write the authors Ms Alexandra Jones from the University of Sydney’s Charles Perkins Centre and the George Institute for Global Health, and Dr Alessandro Demaio from the University of Melbourne.

Research associate and PhD candidate Alexandra Jones

Research associate and PhD candidate Alexandra Jones


The cost to Australia’s health

“Australians are now much more likely to be obese than their parents were at the same age. At age two – five years, 8.8 percent of children in 2014-2015 were obese, compared with 4.2 percent two decades earlier. More obesity-related chronic conditions at younger ages will likely bring cascading increases in health care costs.”

“Beyond waistlines, the impact of SSBs remains most visible in their contribution to oral disease and tooth decay. In 2010, 55 percent of six-year-olds had experienced decay in their deciduous teeth and 48 percent of 12-year-olds in their permanent teeth,” write Jones and Demaio.

“Sugar-sweetened beverages provide a significant course of free sugars while offering no nutritional benefit, making them a reasonable target for public health action.”

A timely call to action

Thirty countries, the Spanish Catalan region and seven cities in the United States adopted SSB taxes by early 2018.

Moves which the authors say were bolstered by the World Health Assembly’s 2017 endorsement of the inclusion of effective taxation of sugar-sweetened beverages in an updated list of ‘best buy’ policies for preventing non-communicable diseases.

“Beyond evidence of individual behaviour change, taxes coming into force in April 2018 in the United Kingdom and Ireland revealed potential of a tiered design to stimulate manufacturers to cut the sugar content of popular drinks.

“Resulting improvements to the food supply promise population-wide health benefits, even among consumers whose purchases remain unmoved by any price increase.”

The latest call to action follows the Australian Beverage Council’s announcement last month that it would voluntarily cut sugar by an average of 20 percent across the industry’s portfolio by 2025. The pledge has been criticised by some health groups as a distraction from the sugar tax debate.

“It’s good to see beverage manufacturers recognise their products are part of the problem, but the commitments made are vague, with no consequence if they aren’t met,” said Ms Jones.

“Implementing a UK-style tiered tax would provide excellent incentive for manufacturers to accelerate sugar reduction to avoid financial penalty. The UK has already seen rapid reformulation – there’s no reason Australians should have to wait another seven years.”

Public support

In what the authors label a “politically pertinent result” a January 2018 poll found the majority of Australians – including 57 percent of conservative voters – already support a tax on SSBs.

“With the true costs mounting, the science in our favour, the public on our side and a growing chorus of global action, 2018 can and must be the historic year Australia puts people before profits.”


Related articles