In 2014-15, 63.4% of Australian adults were found by the National Health Survey to be overweight or obese. In response to Australia climbing up the ladder of the most obese countries in the world, professor Stephen Colagiuri, a diabetes expert at the University of Sydney, has urged the government to introduce a sugar tax to dissuade people from consuming sugary foods.

But what if you live in a place where you don’t have easy access to fresh food? What if the Macca’s down the road is within walking distance, but you have to jump in the car and drive for miles to get to the nearest supermarket? That’s called a food desert, and the sugar tax could have a bigger impact on people who live in those areas.

What is the sugar tax?

At this point, it is a recommendation from some health experts, which would place a levy on sugary drinks in order to mitigate obesity rates.

A report from the World Health Organization (WHO) says that a tax of 20% or more results in the drop of soft drink sales, which they say would also cut healthcare costs if it succeeded in improving health outcomes.

The Grattan Institute has suggested a tax of 40 cents per 100 grams of sugar, and calculated that obesity costs Australians $5.3 billion a year. The savings they have projected would mean an extra $500 million for the budget.

Is there support for the sugar tax?

The WHO called for a tax on sugary drinks across the world in October 2016 to curb the effects of sugary drinks on health.

Many health researchers also advocate for the tax as well. Dr Belinda Reeve from the University of Sydney writes that there needs to be more things done at the same time to reduce obesity rates and the risk of diabetes, but the tax could be effective in Australia, as the tobacco tax has been.

The Greens have released a statement saying that if the government doesn’t act on the issue, they will draft a private senator’s bill and introduce it to the Senate by the end of 2017.

Who is against it?

The Turnbull government, Labor, and senators Pauline Hanson and Derryn Hinch have all rejected the idea of imposing a sugar tax.

Minister for Health Greg Hunt has said the government was taking action in other ways: “We’re committed to tackling obesity, but increasing the family’s weekly shop at the supermarket isn’t the answer.”

Pauline Hanson said she would not support the tax because she believes it’s high time people take responsibility for what they put in their mouths, and Derryn Hinch said the tax would be unfair and unworkable.

Labor leader Bill Shorten said the opposition had no plans for a sugar tax, but said it was probably time to “toughen up advertising restrictions around junk food at peak periods when the little eyeballs are on the TV and getting all the wrong messages about food and healthy eating”.

What is a food desert?

A food desert is an area where there are no fresh fruit or vegetable outlets within a 500-metre radius. They are also defined by limited access to shops that sell healthy foods, coupled with an abundance of fast-food takeaway options within easy walking distance. These areas leave people disenfranchised by lack of access to affordable, healthy food and at a greater risk of obesity and the development of diabetes.

There have been a number of food deserts identified in Australia: Braybrook, Maidstone and West Footscray/Kingsville have been identified in Victoria, areas of western Sydney including Blacktown (where residents are three times more likely to develop diabetes) and Mount Druitt and even in wealthy areas of Canberra. Research commissioned by Anglicare and Red Cross showed that there was insufficient access to affordable and nutritionally adequate food in inner suburbs such as Kingston, Red Hill and Fyshwick, as well as Narrabundah Longstay Caravan Park, Belconnen, Weston Creek and newer suburbs in the Gungahlin region.

How would the sugar tax affect people living in food deserts?

The same kind of sugar tax was proposed in the UK. It was met with heavy resistance from the seemingly conservative lobby group, the TaxPayers’ Alliance, which cited the ineffectiveness of the tax in Mexico, the chief executive stating:

“It is astonishing that the government is pressing ahead with this pernicious tax when the evidence clearly suggests that it will simply not affect consumption in any meaningful way. As with any regressive tax, this will only raise living costs for hard-pressed families, already struggling with big tax bills. Politicians must look at the evidence and ignore the High Priests of the Nanny State in the public health lobby, and abolish the Sugar Tax before it is too late.”

Food deserts are, in particular, an issue for people of low socio-economic status (SES) and where there are people with mobility issues in the community. The tax will undeniably hit the poor and those living in food deserts harder because more of their income goes towards poor quality food, but there is evidence from studying the effectiveness of the tax in Mexico that it does decrease spending on unhealthy food products for everyone.

A research paper by PLOS One, which also supports the 20% hike in tax on sugar, states:

“We note that Australians of low SES are disproportionately affected by high rates of diet-related illnesses and are therefore likely to experience greater dietary improvements as a result of a tax on SSBs. Inequitable aspects are likely to be further ameliorated if revenue was used to support healthy eating initiatives and subsidies on healthy foods for low-SES households.”

This means the sugar tax could actually be beneficial to low-SES households in food deserts, as a result of both a shift in eating habits, and a freeing up of space in the health budget to rectify access issues in relation to cost and geography.

Peter Fray

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