Feb 5, 2018

The government is right: sugar tax is rotten policy

The public health lobby is demanding a sugar tax to reduce soft drink consumption -- but there's no evidence from other countries that have tried it that it has any health benefits.

Bernard Keane — Politics editor

Bernard Keane

Politics editor

The public health lobby recently renewed its push for "sugar tax" on soft drinks, arguing it would help reduce obesity. "A tax on sugar sweetened beverages should be introduced as a matter of priority," the Australian Medical Association (AMA) stated early in January. The doctor's lobby group -- fresh from their self-serving win in preventing Australians from buying codeine-based medication -- argued that food producers and retailers are contributing to "overweight and obesity with associated health problems" and if those industries profess any commitment to nutrition, the "credibility of these statements is undermined by their lack of engagement around evidence-based interventions".

The AMA has been cheered on by significant sections of the media, with Fairfax and the ABC providing positive coverage for a tax and suggesting any lack of interest from politicians -- the government was quick to rule out a sugar tax -- as the sinister product of the toxic lobbying power of Big Soda.

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23 thoughts on “The government is right: sugar tax is rotten policy

  1. Michael Quincey O'Neill

    Right, Bernard. The nanny state shouldn’t stop people consuming sugary drinks or at least make them at least pay extra for it but should continue to provide affordable healthcare for these people.

    If they don’t want to live in the ‘nanny state’ they can sign a declaration and give up their rights to healthcare. They can thus enjoy all the subsequent benefits of true ‘freedom’.

    1. Draco Houston

      If I don’t like regressive sin taxes I should be made stateless?

      1. Michael Quincey O'Neill

        No. But you should be rendered stateless for making ad absurdum arguments.

        1. Draco Houston

          Thanks Mr ‘if you don’t like one tax you should have your rights taken away’.

  2. Cheree Corbin

    “But even if sales did drop 6% in Mexico, and that drop was sustained, it hasn’t had any impact on obesity or diseases like diabetes in Mexico: both rose between 2012 and 2016 despite the 2014 imposition of the tax.”

    Leaving aside the fact 2012-2014 logically wouldn’t have been impacted by the 2014 tax, that’s not how obesity or diabetes works. Obesity is a shit of a thing to treat. Once you’re obese, you’re body does everything it can to keep you obese. You have a similar mechanism with diabetes. I don’t think anyone would expect to see a sudden drop-off in obesity or diabetes rates. Give it 10 years and take another look. Two years does not a longitudinal study make.

    However, there’s plenty of solid evidence that price increases are effective in reducing a similar societal ‘ill’ (for want of a better word) — smoking. I’m surprised there’s no comparison with tobacco price increases and how that impacts smoking rates.

    Here’s some examples:
    “There was strong evidence that raising cigarette prices through increased taxes is a more effective tobacco control policy measure for reducing smoking behavior among youth, young adults, and persons of low socioeconomic status, compared to the general population.”

    “Conclusions: Pricing and price related promotions are among the most important marketing tools employed by tobacco companies. Future tobacco control efforts that aim to raise prices and limit price related marketing efforts are likely to be important in achieving reductions in tobacco use and the public health toll caused by tobacco.”

    “A fundamental principle of economics is that of the downward sloping demand curve. Many have argued that tobacco use is an exception to this law and that addictive consumption was not conducive to standard economic analysis (e.g. Elster, 1979; Winston, 1980). However, substantial economic research clearly demonstrates that the demands for cigarettes and other tobacco products respond to changes in prices and other factors.”

  3. old greybearded one

    Rubbish Bernard, you certainly have no grasp of the science of sugar. Milk has calories, but it doesn’t have a Glycaemic Index anything like sugar, so unless the milk has heaps of added sugar. There are inidigenous societies who have lived on high fat, high protein diets successfully and without obesity. There is not one who has high sugar. Sugar was great when you put it in your coffee or tea, even in fruit preserves because they were used sparingly. Now it is in drinks we drink all the time. You 2014 data from Mexico is based on bullshit of the same order as the IPA’s education ravings. It would take a few years for benefits to really show up, just like the Gonski funding. You take a measure look for five minutes and say “Oh didn’t work”. I do agree about the codeine though. It was the only pain killer I can take that works. Panadol is useless and I cannot take aspirin or ibuprofen. Codeine has a benefit to people, large amounts of sucrose and fructose do not.

  4. Scott Grant

    Broadly I would agree with the article. Sugar is bad, but you would have to tax it at tobacco levels to induce significant change and I cannot see any government doing that. On the other hand, governments need revenue. Maybe dressing it up as a health initiative might make it a more acceptable tax.

    I would quibble that not all calories are equal and the effects of sugar come from more than just its biochemical energy. For instance: https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2014/aug/24/robert-lustig-sugar-poison

  5. Peter Wotton

    The problem with sucrose is that it is half fructose which is metabolised by the body directly to fat. That is a major difference with the calories in milk and smoothies. One of the major concerns about obesity in the USA is the universal use of high frustose corn syrup in most convenience food.

  6. MJM

    I think that there are two separate issues.
    The average consumption of sugar has risen from 1.81 kgs per year in 1700, to 10.2 kgs per year in 1800, 40.8 kgs per year in 1900 to 81.6 kgs per year in 2009. Also in the mix since the mid 20th century is the high and rising consumption of high fructose corn syrup used in many manufactured foods. Rises in obesity and diabetes suggest action needs to be taken to reduce sugar consumption.
    Taxing soft drinks is likely not the answer for many of the reasons given in this article. But failure to tackle the public health issues arising from high sugar consumption is not a solution either.

  7. AR

    Sugar, as she is spoke – pure, white & deadly – should not be consumed, end of.
    There is an abundance of sweetness in nature in unprocessed form but where’s the megaprofit in that?
    The entire sugar crop should be bought up, annually, for ethanol production – excluding the Rodent’s relly in Manildra – so the farmers could continue abusing and wasting the fertile land without having to think, a prime political aim.

  8. Don Willoughby

    What is this outrage about “Nanny State. The name derives from the actions of a responsible carer assisting the survival of their gene pool. Are you calling for Australia to disown interest in the well being and survival of its citizens? Guess you support scrapping the public health system, public schooling, police, fire brigades, aged and child care and the myriad of other services nations supply their citizens. We live in times of record lifestyle health challenges and you call for hands off. Maybe you could find a position advising the Trump admin.

    1. Draco Houston

      That is creepy as hell, TBH. You sin tax lovers are insane.

      1. Peter Wotton

        Not a sin, unless you classify obesity as a sin, but it is a very serious health issue.

        1. Draco Houston


  9. Sleuth

    The government is right: sugar tax is rotten policy
    Yes Bernard, Rotten teeth, rotten health outcomes and rotten ideas that 14 teaspoons of sugar in one softdrink is acceptable. Maybe when you wake up from your nanny state nightmare, you could help formulate ideas which could lesson sugar consumption, by other means than a tax. One way or the other, no country can afford a health system crippled by the ” freedom” to choose obesity.

  10. Kerry Wilsmore

    Bernard, of course there would be no immediate drop in Diabetes after the introduction of a sugar tax. Even you could work that out. Poorly argued.

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