Australians have a growing appetite for sweet drinks reform

By Richard Whitehead

- Last updated on GMT

pic:getty/carmenmartineztorron
pic:getty/carmenmartineztorron

Related tags: sugar tax, Australia

Australians’ growing appetite for the regulation of sugary drinks means the time is sweet for governments to tackle their consumption, say public health researchers.

According to the South Australian Health and Medical Research Institute’s Health Policy Centre, an increasing number of Aussies support a range of measures to curb the health impact of sugary drinks.

In a study published in BMJ Open​ at the end of last month, the Centre analysed the results of a national survey done in 2017. The study canvassed 3,430 Australians from each state and territory, asking about 10 potential policy initiatives to reduce consumption of sugary drinks.

It found that three in four support a range of measures to curb their health impacts, including warning labels, further advertising restrictions and a “health levy​” to fund public education campaigns. 

Support for warning labels, restrictions and sugar taxes

Professor Caroline Miller, the centre’s director, says state and federal governments should take on board the findings, which are bound to have the support of the lion’s share of consumers.

These latest figures show support for warning labels on containers, places of sale and advertising is around 85%​,” Miller said.

Support for restrictions on the marketing and sale of these products to children is above 75%, while 77% of Australians support a tax on sugary drinks, provided it acts as a ‘health levy’, with the proceeds funding obesity prevention​,” she added.

Lincoln Size, chief executive of Cancer Council SA, which part-funded the study, urged governments to act on its findings. The organisation has been ramping up its efforts to publicise the cancer risks associated with sugary drinks.

It’s great to see that Australians are supportive of further government regulations in the area of sugar sweetened beverages, and it would be fantastic to see to the government use this research to inform future policy decisions, which will make real change to the health of all Australians,​” Size said

Miller believes the research illustrates the public’s increasing understanding of how health warnings and targeted taxation impact behaviour.

We know that the very strongest support is for consumer warning labels; that people feel they have a right to be informed and have a decent understanding about what they are purchasing, what they are consuming and what they are giving to their children​,” she told BeverageDaily.

So straightforward consumer information, such as the number of teaspoons of sugar that might be in a bottle of soft drink, is something people really understand and it’s very clear they support it​.”

Helpful labels or health halos?

Though the study shows considerable support for labelling, research published last October​ by the institute found so-called “health halos​” have been making it harder for consumers to know which drinks are good for them.

Aimee Brownbill, a PhD candidate under Miller, investigated how “better-for-you​” features on current drink labels were being used to create a healthy image for drinks that might contain high quantities of sugar.

Words like ‘fresh’, ‘raw’ and ‘organic’ don’t tell you much at all about the health value of the product they’re advertising. And don’t get me started on ‘superfoods'!

Pictures are often featured as well, such as fruit and vegetables or sports stars and sporting equipment. Really anything that will associate the product with an active, healthy lifestyle​,” she added.

Australia’s obesity rate is among the highest in the world, yet Miller believe it lags behind other countries in developing comprehensive educational or regulatory responses to address sugary drink consumption, a key modifiable risk factor, she says, that contributes substantial excess sugar to the diet.

Industry self-regulation

Her findings appear to be at odds with the official line pitched by the Australian soft drinks industry, however. Though her study reported that over three-quarters of Australians supported a tax, the Australian Beverages Council is adamant that this is not what consumers really want.

Instead, it believes that self-regulation is a much more viable option than a sugar tax and last year pledged to reduce drinks companies’ sugar use by 20% by 2025–in a move backed by the federal government.

Writing in FoodNavigator-Asia, BeverageDaily’s sister title, earlier this year, council chief executive Geoff Parker expressed: “Clearly these types of taxes appear to be a quick fix but in reality don’t shift the dial on the problem and, concerningly, usually have unintended consequences​ such as impacting jobs, budget blackholes or placing more strain on low or middle-income households​.”

Inquiries to the council revealed that the industry’s position has not changed, despite mounting evidence that the public is becoming more accepting of a sugar levy, and it stands by its view that “consumers and households don't want governments in their shopping trolley, they don't want governments poking around in their fridges and they certainly don't want governments in their pantries.​”

Yet Professor Miller is unequivocal about her study’s findings. “I think [the council’s position] is wrong. What we have seen from our research is overwhelming public support for government action around sugary drinks​,” she said.

People see the government has a responsibility to protect health, and it picks up the tab for obesity, relating to healthcare costs, as well as its impact on employment and society.

Really, it’s undeniable that the community understands that excessive sugary drinks consumption leads to harm and there is a role for the government to educate consumers, and also to curb that consumption and taxation is seen as acceptable by the majority​,” she added.

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