Australia needs to place a levy on sugary drinks now
Dr Ayman Shenouda
A sugar fix anyone?
Sugar certainly got some attention this week prompted by some important, corresponding, new research undertaken here in Australia[i] and in France[ii].
The first focussed on risks associated with fizzy drinks, while the other a little broader and on ultra-processed foods, but both found similar findings in terms of increased cancer risk. In a third article featured this week, in Meds Obs opinion, Dr Jon Fogarty wrote that we cannot allow another 50-year con job. I couldn’t agree more.
Rapid increasing consumption of lower nutritional quality foods is clearly driving an increased disease burden. It is those ultra-processed foods that we need to look at which contain high salt, trans fats and saturated fats along with sugar.
It was quite telling that the recent PC Report Shifting the Dial: 5-year Productivity Review, released in August last year fell short of recommending a sugar tax. This is despite a strong obesity emphasis in the report only called for a soft market control solution through voluntary reductions in sugar content (by major manufacturers of SSBs).
Many are comparing the current policy complacency in response to sugar, in particular, with the dangerously slow response to tobacco. And, I truly believe that if we were serious around prevention then we would be looking to a sugar tax here in Australia. If we are to shift health outcomes then we need to think less about a system which drives episodic care and more about those broader factors that influence health outcomes. I’ve said that before but it needs restating particularly on this issue.
Consumers clearly need more help to identify those foods with added sugar.
Some of this work has been done through the Federal Government’s Health Stars Rating scheme designed to help consumers make more informed choices. But manipulative marketing seems to be out-tricking the system by making unhealthy products look healthy.
Choice put forward some good recommendations in August to make this system better. Making sure foods high in sugar, fat or salt can’t get a high star rating being their number one!
A Navigation Paper of the 5-year review of the Health Star Rating System was released in January. It will be interesting to see what changes are made in response to the review.
Placing a fiscal incentive through increasing the price of these foods would make for an effective solution. But, I really think a sugar tax is warranted here. And, if not a full sugar tax, then perhaps a health levy on sugary drinks is a good start.
The UK is leading the way with its plans to introduce a levy on sugar-sweetened beverages this year. Importantly, revenue will fund a prevention focus through expanded programs to reduce obesity and encourage physical activity and balanced diets for school children.[iii] Ireland is following with a levy coming into effect in April.
Closer to home, there seems very little appetite to introduce a similar levy in Australia despite calls from various leading health experts and many of the peak bodies.
Despite twenty-six countries placing a health levy on sugary drinks, we are not seeing similar leadership from our Government. Federal minister for agriculture and water resources, David Littleproud, said in January that governments “should not dictate the diet of citizens”, much to the delight of those industries that benefit from inaction.[iv]
Minister Littleproud heads a portfolio responsible for the investment in the development of Australia’s sugarcane industry. In my view, this is an issue that falls in the food safety category as excess refined sugar has undesirable health consequences. Therefore, despite where the legislation may sit, this is more an issue for the health minister.
There’s plenty of evidence
In terms of a need to take immediate action, we’re certainly not short on evidence here. And there’s now increased evidence to act on sugary soft drinks.
The French research I mentioned earlier looked at the risk between ultra-processed food and cancer. In this prospective study published in the BMJ, found a 10 per cent increase in the proportion of ultra-processed foods in the diet was associated with a significant increase of greater than 10 per cent in the risk of overall and breast cancer. ii
Proving that soft drinks elevated risk of cancer, the new research from the University of Melbourne and the Cancer Council Victoria released this week also found people who regularly drink sugary soft drinks were more at risk of cancer. i
Interestingly, this Victorian study showed that higher consumption of both sugar-sweetened and artificially sweetened soft drinks is associated with higher waist circumference. However, cancer risk was only higher among those who drink more sugar-sweetened soft drinks. This is an important finding as many opt for the alternative diet option or sugar substitute thinking it better, yet it also may be contributing to our obesity epidemic. i
Even more surprising, the key finding from this study that increased cancer risk is not driven completely by obesity. Those who are not overweight have an increased cancer risk if they regularly drink sugary soft drinks. i
We need action now
It is always those who can least afford it that suffer the most. Poor diet is more a result of poverty than a lack of understanding around the risks. The only food the poor can afford is making them unhealthy.
The key findings from these recent studies both in terms of ultra-processed foods and sugary soft drinks now link to increased cancer risk. This issue is a health priority and needs to be a key focus for the health ministry.
Let’s not sugar coat it – sugar and sugar sweetened drinks kill - we need action on this now.
[i] Hannink, N. Increased cancer risk from fizzy drinks – no matter what size you are. University of Melbourne. 22 February 2018. Available at: https://pursuit.unimelb.edu.au/articles/increased-cancer-risk-from-fizzy-drinks-no-matter-what-size-you-are
[ii] Fiolet, T., Srour, B., Sellem, L., Kesse-Guyot, E., Allès, B., Méjean, C., et al. Consumption of ultra-processed foods and cancer risk: results from NutriNet-Santé prospective cohort BMJ 2018; 360 :k322. Available at: http://www.bmj.com/content/360/bmj.k322
[iii] Gov. UK. Department of Health and Social Care. Guidance: Childhood obesity. A plan for action. 20 January 2017. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/childhood-obesity-a-plan-for-action/childhood-obesity-a-plan-for-action
[iv] Davey, M. Article. Health experts support sugar tax as coalition calls for personal responsibility. The Guardian. 8 January 2018. Available at:https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2018/jan/08/health-experts-support-sugar-tax-as-coalition-calls-for-personal-responsibility