In this opinion piece, Consumers SA Committee member Elaine Attwood AM outlines the case for a sugar tax and argues that serious debate on the issue is long overdue in this country:


Several countries (and some American states) have now instituted a ‘sugar tax’ in a bid to stop the obesity epidemic which is plaguing Western countries. That debate has started now in Australia.

It is incomprehensible to believe that people living in this day and age in Western civilisations could be unaware of the importance diet plays in both good and bad health.  Respected Medical people, Government Departments of Health, populist literature and multimedia all bombard the population with messages that are meant to make us aware of what we should and shouldn’t eat to achieve and maintain good health.

While many foods have been in and out of favour as knowledge grows, (think for example eggs and cholesterol,  or fats until divided into saturated and unsaturated),  one dietary substance has remained constantly controversial- and that is sugar.  In fairness it seems that it is the fructose fraction of sugar and not the glucose fraction that is the culprit in sugar consumption.  

The UK announced in January that it would be introducing a sugar tax on soft drinks and this will come in to effect in 2018, with the funds raised used to tackle childhood obesity.  In the EU, Spain’s sugar tax is scheduled to come into effect in 2017 and Estonia announced plans for a similar tax in September of 2016 although no firm timeline has been announced. (1)  In recent years Hungary, Mexico, France, Chile and South Africa have all implemented a sugar tax.

In neighbouring New Zealand doctors are calling for a 20% levy on sugary drinks, the NZ Medical Association claiming that it has enough evidence that a sugar tax would help reduce obesity, diabetes and tooth decay. Dentists have called for labelling laws to outline a drink’s sugar content in teaspoons. (2)

Australians have just begun to talk about a sugar tax and what it might mean for them as individuals and the country as a whole. The Gratton Institute recently recommended a A$0.40 tax per 100 grams of sugar which it believes will cut soft drink consumption by 15% and raise A$500mper annum for the government.

The government itself has so far shown little support for such a tax with Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce describing a sugar tax as ‘bonkers mad’ and a ‘moralistic tax’ that would have a huge impact on sugar farmers in the North of Australia.  However it has been reported that the Greens party have drafted legislation for a sugar sweetened beverages tax ahead of a private senators bill to be heard before the end of the year.

So why a sugar tax?

The short answer is ‘obesity’, but there are plenty of others health issues said to be caused by or made worse by high sugar consumption.

Two excellent publications make clear why so many are calling for a sugar tax in Australia.

The first is an article in ‘The Conversation’, authored by Gary Sacks, Jane Martin and Lennert Veerman, entitled, “Australian sugary drinks tax could prevent thousands of heart attacks and strokes and save 1,600 lives”. (3)  They cite their new research which was published in PLOS ONE, where for the first time they modelled the impact of a sugar tax in Australia.

Over 25 years a 20% rise in the price of soft drinks and flavoured mineral waters would save 1,600 lives and prevent 4,400 heart attacks and 1100 strokes.    They also found that such a tax would result in people decreasing their consumption of sugary drinks and that the influence of a price increase would be greatest on those who drink a lot of sugary drinks, i.e,. the younger age groups. This, they felt, was an important result that is difficult to achieve through other obesity prevention measures.

High sugar intake is known to be associated with obesity, heart disease, strokes,  type 2 diabetes, some cancers and adverse dental health. As sugary soft drinks are popular with children and adolescents, to limit that consumption would ensure a better health perspective in that population. It is also estimated about 0.7% of men and 0.3% in women would benefit in a reduction of obesity.

The WHO recently released revised Guidelines for sugars, recommending that energy from ‘free sugar’ (that is any sugar added to a food), is less than 10% overall. Analysis of added sugar in the Australian population found that most adults and children exceed that amount. Indeed, Australians bought 1.1billion litres of sugary drinks in 2015 at a cost of A$2.2 billion and does not include what is purchased from fast food outlets, cinemas, vending machines, hotels and convenience stores.

The second paper is actually a joint media release from the Deakin University, The Obesity Policy Coalition and the Australian Prevention Partnership Centre. (4)

This is a Landmark Report setting out an ambitious roadmap to tackle obesity and unhealthy diets. The report states that the huge variation in the implementation of nutrition policies across federaland state governments is diminishing Australia’s efforts to address obesity.  The report draws upon expertise from more than 100 nutritionists, health organisations, academics and community groups and builds a comprehensive picture on where we can act to make the most difference.

Some statistics from the report include:-

  • Almost 2 out of 3 (63%) of Australian adults and one in four (25%) of Australian children are overweight or obese.
  • Direct and indirect costs associated with overweight and obesity have been estimated at over $56billion each year.

The report doesn’t just state the problems but suggests what action should be taken by each state and territory to fix those problems.

It is, not surprisingly, argued by the soft drinks and Grocery industries that such a tax would, as Barnaby Joyce suggests, hurt Australian sugar cane growers, and in other countries it has affected some share prices.  It have been suggested that it would harm the most vulnerable and poorest in the community. Also that it is unfair to tax soft drinks when other products such as juices, cordials, energy drinks and some milk products also have added sugar in their formulations. Choice was another factor mentioned. It should also be borne in mind that when the GST was introduced, food was exempted from the tax.  

Proponents argue that the money collected (estimated to be more than A$400m a year) could be directed to subsidise healthy food for low income Australians, contribute to childhood obesity prevention programs and support the promotion of healthy living.

So the debate continues for the present. However most Australians know from many years of promotion what a healthy diet consists of, yet we still have a growing obesity problem so obviously we are not heeding the advice we are given. Something needs to change - perhaps the proposed sugar tax, hitting us as it will in the hip pocket, will force Australians into changing their diets and those of their children for the better.


1.  Breaking News on Food and Beverage Development - Europe 9/12/2016

2.  Breaking News on Food ands Beverage Development  - Asia Pacific 17/12/2016

3.   Authors: 

Sacks, Gary. Senior Research Fellow, WHO Collaborating Centre for Obesity Prevention, Deakin University.

Martin, Jane. Executive Manager of Obesity Policy Coalition, Senior Fellow, Faculty of Medicine, Dentistry and Health Sciences, University off Melbourne.

Veerman, Lennert. Senior Research Fellow, School of Population Health, University                       of Queensland.

4.  Media Release 20/02//2017: Landmark report sets out ambitious roadmap to tackle obesity and unhealthy diets, Deakin University, The Australian Prevention Partnership Centre and the Obesity Policy Coalition.


AuthorRay Dennis