Sugar tax adds to the healthy living toolbox

Every day we read or hear more about the so-called ‘sugar tax’ or, as it should be more appropriately termed, a ‘health levy on sugar sweetened beverages’.

We have heard arguments from government and health experts both in favour of, and opposed to this ‘tax’. As CEO of one the state’s leading health charities I support the state government’s goal to make Tasmania the healthiest population by 2025 and the Healthy Tasmania Five Year Strategic Plan, with its focus on reducing obesity and smoking.

However, it is only one tool in the tool box to help us achieve the vision.  

Our approach should include strategies such as restricting the marketing of unhealthy food and limiting the sale of unhealthy food and drink products at schools and other public institutions together with public education campaigns.

Some of these strategies are already in progress to include in our toolbox. We all have to take some individual responsibility for the choices we make, but as health leaders and decision makers, we also have a responsibility to create an environment where healthy choices are made easier.

This, in my opinion, is not nannyism but just sensible policy and demonstrated leadership which will positively affect the health of our population.

 Manufacturers tell us that there are many foods in the marketplace that will contribute to weight gain and we should focus more on the broader debate about diet and exercise, but we know this is not working.

A recent Cancer Council study found that 17 per cent of male teens drank at least one litre of soft drink a week – this equates to at least 5.2 kilograms of extra sugar in their diet a year.

Evidence indicates a significant relationship between the amount and frequency of sugar sweetened beverages consumed and an increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes.  We already have 45,000 people at high risk of type 2 diabetes in Tasmania.

Do we really want to say we contributed to a rise in this figure by not implementing strategies available to us that would make a difference?

I recall being quite moved last year when the then UK Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne said that he wouldn’t be doing his job if he didn’t act on reducing the impact of sugary drinks.

“I am not prepared to look back at my time here in this Parliament, doing this job and say to my children's generation... I'm sorry. We knew there was a problem with sugary drinks…..But we ducked the difficult decisions and we did nothing.”

The UK’s levy on sugar sweetened beverages will start in 2018, with revenue raised to go toward funding programs to reduce obesity and encourage physical activity and healthy eating for school children. We know unhealthy food is cheaper and that despite best efforts by many Australians to make healthier choices price does affect our decisions as to what we buy.

In Mexico a tax of just one peso a litre (less than seven cents) on sugary drinks cut annual consumption by 9.7 per cent and raised about $1.4 billion in revenue.  

Similarly, the 2011 French levy has decreased consumption of sugary drinks, particularly among younger people and low income groups. 

The addition of a health levy on sugar sweetened beverages is not going to solve all problems but as part of a coordinated and multi-faceted approach, I believe we can effect change.

  • Caroline Wells, is Diabetes Tasmania CEO