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Academics and government spar over sugar tax

It sure is a sticky issue: in the wake of two recent reports advocating for the imposition of a sugar tax, Liberal frontbenchers have reaffirmed their opposition to the proposed levy.

At a doorstop interview in Tasmania on Tuesday 21 February 2017, education minister Simon Birmingham added his voice to the fray.

“There are many different factors to make sure that we get the best outcomes for people in terms of preventative health policies, and in the government we don’t believe that higher taxes on the Australian population is the right approach,” he said.

This is a more civil version of Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce’s comments in November last year, in response to a Grattan Institute report supporting a tax. Joyce slammed a sugar tax as “bonkers mad”, before proclaiming “we are not food fascists”.

Even opposition leader Bill Shorten was in sweet harmony with the government on this issue. In Ipswich on Monday 20 February 2017, he indicated that he too opposed a sugar tax.

Now, more academics have joined those from the Grattan Institute in making their pro-sugar tax voices heard.

Stephen Colagiuri of the University of Sydney’s Boden Institute of Obesity published an article in the Medical Journal of Australia. In the piece, entitled The obesity epidemic and sugar-sweetened beverages: A taxing time, he systematically explained why a sugar tax made sense.

“Obesity is a major and costly public health epidemic and an Australian national health priority that requires urgent action,” he wrote.

“While obesity is a complex condition with many contributing factors, a relative excessive kilojoule intake is a major driver of weight gain. Sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs) contribute to this excess energy intake in children and adults.”

SSBs, on average, shave 8.5 years off people’s life expectancy worldwide.

Colagiuri noted that half the Australian population exceeded WHO sugar intake recommendations. WHO suggests people’s sugar consumption should be less than 10 per cent of their total diet.

He further highlighted that Mexico, which imposed a tax on SSBs in January 2014, had seen a 12 per cent decline in SSB purchases by the end of that year.

As for those who cry ‘nanny state’ in opposition to a sugar tax, Colagiuri pointed to cigarette and alcohol excises, which the government seemingly had no moral issue levying on Australians.

Joining the bitter chorus in favour of a sugar tax are University of Melbourne researchers. Their analysis, Taxes and subsidies for improving diet and population health in Australia: A cost-effectiveness modelling study, published mid-February 2017 in PLOS Medicine, makes a quantitative case for the tax.

By studying the effects of various taxes on health, including those on sugar, salt, saturated fat and SSBs, they found that the sugar tax had the greatest impact.

They also considered the influence of a fruit and vegetable subsidy on health, and concluded that, combined with a sugar tax, this would produce the best outcome.

While the evidence clearly favours a sugar tariff, it appears unlikely to be implemented. So, with an abundance of cheap supermarket treats, not to mention junk food advertising to children continuing apace, our nation is likely to continue down the road to increasing obesity.

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