Australians have mixed views on how food and beverages with health impacts should be regulated, but they’re opposed to using increased taxes to deter consumption.

That’s the outcome from work by Essential Media on voter views about food and drink regulation as some public health groups push for Australia to copy Unite States “soda taxes” in the wake of concerns about the health impacts of sugar and soft drink.

While voters most favoured the less interventionist approaches of better labelling and treating consumption of potentially harmful foods as a matter of personal responsibility, they also strongly supported outright bans on products containing levels of potentially harmful products above recommended levels, and supported advertising bans. However, using tax increases was the one approach more voters opposed than supported.

Labelling, tax increases and advertising restrictions are the interventions most persistently favoured by public health lobbyists to reduce Australians’ intake of alcohol, junk food and sugar, or in the case of alcohol further reduce it, since Australians’ consumption of alcohol has been falling for an extended period. Interestingly, though, when the alcohol industry’s DrinkWise campaign began putting messages such as “kids and alcohol don’t mix” and “it is safest not to drink while pregnant” on alcohol containers, the hard-line Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education attacked them as not constituting proper “health advice”.

The food, beverage and alcohol industries maintain that some public health lobbyists demonise their efforts at self-regulation in a quest to convince governments to impose higher taxes. One high-profile non-alcohol company spoke of trying to meet with Professor Mike Daube, probably the most influential public health figure in Australia, and being rebuffed by him with the suggestion there would be no value in a meeting beyond the company being able to claim it had met with him.

Daube maintains he is not anti-industry. “I have met on various occasions with alcohol industry representatives, even quite recently,” he told Crikey, “but would not wish to meet with anyone from the tobacco industry. That apart, I find it hard to think of anything I have ‘rebuffed’, other than visits from PR people. On the other hand, people in areas such as the food industry have themselves on occasion ‘rebuffed’ proposals for meetings. So this is all a little strange.

“My concerns are not about all industries, but about the tobacco, alcohol and ultra-processed food industries whose products cause substantial harm, and where there are glaring conflicts of interest … I believe that there can be important roles for a wide range of industries in working on public health. There are many great examples, such as the work of vaccine manufacturers, car makers improving car safety, water companies and fluoridation, sun protective products, horticultural companies, media organisations, various pharmaceutical companies and other groups in the health sector — among others.”

He notes that his position is consistent with that of the World Health Organisation. “My views are consistent with those of WHO, as expressed by its Director-General, Dr Margaret Chan, that ‘In the view of WHO, the formulation of health policies must be protected from distortion by commercial or vested interests’.”

Daube says he’s not surprised by criticisms from industry. “I have been on the receiving end of unpleasant personal attacks from these industries for more than 40 years, but I think there is now a broad acceptance that my work has contributed to preventing much premature death and disease here and internationally.”

Industry figures also complain about the attitude of the Commonwealth Department of Health and particularly of the Australian National Preventive Health Agency to any industry consultation. ANPHA’s Expert Committee on Alcohol, which under its terms of reference is supposed to have an industry representative, only has academics, bureaucrats and law enforcement representatives, although the Expert Committee on Obesity has an industry figure, Rebecca Boustead. ANPHA ignores detailed industry submissions to its consultation processes, one alcohol industry executive notes. The Department of Health also insists on consulting with industry separately from public health figures, as requested by the latter, while the standing committee on alcohol that supports the Intergovernmental Committee on Drugs contains no industry representatives; they are classed as “stakeholders” only.

On the other hand, public health advocates would argue that the efforts of former Kraft-Cadbury’s representative Alastair Furnival as Assistant Health Minister Fiona Nash’s chief of staff illustrate what can happen when those who perceive themselves as representing the interests of industry get too close to the health policy decision-making process.

With the next phase of the public health debate likely to centre on higher taxes on alcohol and sugar, the fight between public health lobbyists and what Daube calls “unhealthy industries” is likely to become more intense.