Federal health minister Tony Abbott dropped a bomb on Coca Cola yesterday when he drew a direct link between their sugar-rich drinks and the twin health issues of childhood obesity and diabetes.

Answering a question from a concerned paediatrician at yesterday’s opening of the International Diabetes Federation’s Diabetes in Indigenous People Forum in Melbourne, Abbott told attendees:

While we’ve had a bit of a campaign about fatty foods from Maccas we haven’t yet had the campaign we need about the sugar-laden, caffeine-laden, acidic stuff that we’re putting in our mouth every day when we swallow a couple of cans of Coke.

The attack has been welcomed by health industry professionals who find themselves agreeing with Abbott for a change.

Nutritionist Rosemary Stanton told Crikey: “I’m fairly amazed at the whole thing. What you usually get from the federal government is a wall of denial on these issues, and you hear the stupid mantra, ‘there are no bad foods, there are only bad diets’.”

“The evidence against soft drinks is actually quite strong. Liquids don’t register in the satiety centre of the brain. It doesn’t decrease the consumption of other food. 600ml of soft drinks contains 70g of sugar, the same amount of calories you get from about four slices of wholemeal bread.”

Professor Paul Zimmet, Director of the International Diabetes Institute, is the co-organiser of the Indigenous health conference, and he has his own theory on what motivated the outburst.

“I think Abbot was sensitive to the points made by national and international experts at the recent International Congress on Obesity,” Zimmet told Crikey. “There were signs of a sympathetic ear to address the issue as a crisis, but also an acknowledgment that there are many other factors driving obesity and type two diabetes.”

“We use the term Coca-Colanisation, and Tony Abbot probably ran off that. Credit has to be given to the government for addressing childhood obesity. They’ve spent $100 million on after school exercise programs. Diabetes and obesity have been made top priorities in the latest COAG meetings. While they’ve also been trying to avoid putting restrictions on advertising these product to kids, this does represent a significant softening of the government’s position.”

Some may even call it a u-turn, which appears to be government policy on an increasing range of issues these days.

Peter Fray

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