Staggering amount of sugary drinks consumed each year puts Australians at risk of developing major health problems, AMA warns
A new campaign targeting the 2.4bn litres of sugary drinks consumed by Australians each year is being launched by the Australian Medical Association as it steps up its calls for a sugar tax.
The “sickly sweet” social media campaign, launched on Wednesday, highlights the role sugary drinks play in Australia’s obesity epidemic, with the average 375ml can of soft drink containing between eight and 12 teaspoons of sugar.
AMA modelling suggests a tax of 40 cents per 100 grams of sugar – meaning a can of Coke would cost 16 cents more – would reduce sugar consumption via sweet drinks by 12-18%.
Frequent consumption of sugary drinks is linked to poor dental health and illnesses associated with obesity such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and cancer.
The AMA says Australians drink the equivalent of 960 Olympic-sized swimming pools of sugary drinks each year.
The association’s president, Dr Omar Khorshid, said what was once a special treat had become an everyday product fuelling addiction and major health problems.
“It’s a staggering figure, and we think Aussies need to know what they are consuming and the impact it can have on their long-term health,” Khorshid said in a statement to mark the campaign launch. “Sugary drinks are a ticking timebomb for the nation’s health and we urge Australians to choose water whenever they can.”
The AMA is pushing Australia to follow the UK’s lead and introduce a tax on the sugar in the drinks – but only those that have no nutritional benefit.
This would be all non-alcoholic drinks containing free sugars – excluding 100% fruit juice, milk-based drinks and cordials. The AMA modelling on such a tax suggests that sugar consumption could be reduced by up to 43,804 tonnes a year.
The tax excise is in line with World Health Organization recommendations for retail prices to increase 20% to have a meaningful health effect.
Rosemary Stanton, a visiting fellow with the School of Medical Sciences at the University of NSW, said she had been calling for sugar taxes since the late 1960s, and while some progress had been made, it was slow in the face of resistance from the drinks industry and sugar farmers in Queensland.
She said targeting sugary drinks made sense as they accounted for more than 50% of sugar consumed in Australia.
“I don’t believe that people need to give up every grain of sugar, but 52% of the free sugars [consumed] come from beverages, so it is by far the biggest thing,” Stanton said.
Jane Martin, the executive manager of the Obesity Policy Coalition, said that more than 50 other countries had introduced similar sugar taxes. She said not only were they working to reduce sugar consumption, but manufacturers were reformulating recipes to reduce the amount of sugar in products.
In the UK, a tiered levy on sugar in soft drinks resulted in sugar levels in lemonades, colas and other soft drinks falling by 44%, with many companies taking out sugar to avoid the tax.
Martin said sugary drinks, including slurpees that were targeted at kids, were cheap to make and had high-profit margins for manufacturers, but there was little awareness of the amount of sugar being consumed.
“There’s so much pushback from the sugary drinks industry. They are making a huge profit out of this, and they don’t want that profit to be impacted, but it is profits over health right now,” she said.
“Isn’t it time really that we put the health of Australians first and not the profits of sugary drink companies.”
The AMA says previous modelling estimated that such a targeted tax would lead to a reduction in the prevalence of obesity by about 2%, leading to annual healthcare savings of between $600m and $1.73bn.
It also estimated that the tax could, over a 25-year period, result in 16,000 fewer cases of type 2 diabetes, 4,400 fewer cases of heart disease and 1,100 fewer cases of stroke.
The federal health minister, Greg Hunt, has previously ruled out a sugar tax after the 2020 Australian of the Year, ophthalmologist James Mueke, made it a key focus of his time in the role.
“We don’t think that driving up the price of household goods for families is the way of achieving this particular outcome,” Hunt said at the time.
The Australian Beverages Council opposes a sugar tax, claiming there’s not enough evidence it would reduce obesity.
“While sugar can play a part in poor diet, the causes of overweight, obesity and associated chronic disease are highly complex, and the key determinants include, but are not limited to, interactions between genetic, metabolic, cultural, environmental, socioeconomic and behavioural factors,” the council claims.