A sugar tax and warnings on soft drinks

It might cost us more but we’re are generally okay with a sugar tax on soft drinks, shows a new survey of Australian consumers.

However, how much we support it depends on the money being used for health programs.

The results of the survey found that more than three-in-four Australians support a range of measures to curb the health impacts of sugary drinks. These included warning labels, advertising restrictions and a “health levy” to fund public education campaigns.

With such overwhelming support, the researchers say it is time governments took action. Australia is one of the top 10 countries in the world, per capita, for drinking sugary drinks.

Support for sugar tax and warning labels

The survey canvassed 3430 Australians across every state and territory, asking about 10 potential policy initiatives to reduce consumption of sugary drinks.

All of the scenarios presented received support from the majority of the public interviewed. In particular, initiatives which focussed on educating children were supported by over 70% of people.

However, we were most in favour of smoking-style text warning labels on drink containers (88%), and government campaigns warning of adverse health effects (87%).

“These latest figures show support for warning labels on containers, places of sale and advertising is around 85%,” says Caroline Miller, who led the research at Adelaide’s SAHMRI Health Policy Centre.

When it came to placing a tax on sugary drinks, 77% of people supported it if the funds were then used for obesity prevention. If it became just another tax, however, support dropped to 60%. There was similar support for restricting sale of sugary drinks to children.

“Support for restrictions on the marketing and sale of these products to children is above 75%,” says Miller.

The study also compared its results with a survey done in South Australia in 2014. Over those years support for a sugar tax and warnings on packages increased.

Time for governments to act

With such high levels of support, governments should implement these health policies knowing that the public are behind the decision, says Lincoln Size, the Chief Executive of Cancer Council SA which part-funded the study.

“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.”

“We know that at least one third of cancers in Australia are preventable through healthy lifestyle changes including eating a healthy diet, engaging in physical activity, limiting alcohol and quitting smoking,” he adds.

Sugar tax unlikely to negatively affect disadvantaged

The respondents in the survey were close to, but not exactly, a cross section of Australia. In particular, there was a higher proportion of university-educated people in the study than the national average (38% vs 26% respectively), and a lower level of social disadvantage in the study (20% vs 29% nationally).

There have been suggestions that disadvantaged households are more negatively affected by sugar taxes than higher socio-economic demographics. However, analysis from Deakin University found this amounted to around $5 a year.

A series of research papers in the journal The Lancet also found that the economic impact was overstated. Instead it found big benefits for the disadvantaged from taxes on unhealthy products. This was in part due to high income houses generally spending more on unhealthy products, and lower income households responding to price changes more readily.

Experience in Australia and overseas has also found that increasing the prices of soft drinks does reduce consumption. When Melbourne’s Alfred Hospital increased soft drink prices by 20%, sales dropped by 27%. After Mexico introduced a sugar tax, sales dropped by 5.5% in the first year and 9.7% the next.

However there is loud opposition to sugar taxes from industry lobby groups. These include the Australian Beverages Council and Australasian Association of Convenience Stores.

While not a silver bullet to lifestyle-related diseases such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease, experts say it can be a significant measure to reduce obesity and its related health problems.

The research is published in the journal BMJ Open.

This article was first published on Australia’s Science Channel, the original news platform of The Royal Institution of Australia.

Related reading:

Please login to favourite this article.