This is the second instalment in a two-part series. Read part one here.

The rationale for a sugar tax goes something like this: increasing the price of soft drinks will lead to decreased demand for them and lower consumption of sugar; as a result, people will lose weight, with attendant public health benefits.

As we saw yesterday, at least one of those links doesn’t follow: increasing the price of soft drinks either leads to only a momentary drop in demand, or substituting into other beverages with resulting higher calorie intake.

But there’s another flaw in the argument as well. In fact, we’ve been reducing our sugar intake for years but we’ve still put on weight. Like alcohol — which the public health lobby insists is being consumed at damaging levels — Australians have significantly reduced their sugar intake in recent decades. One study is worth quoting at length:

With the use of the FAOSTAT food balance sheets for Australia, the per capita availability of added or refined sugars and sweeteners was shown to have fallen 16% from 152 g/d in 1980 to 127 g/d in 2011 (P-trend = 0.001). In national dietary surveys in 1995 and 2011–2012, added-sugars intake declined markedly in adult men (from 72 to 59 g/d; 218%) but not in women (44–42 g/d; NS). As a proportion of total energy, added-sugars intake fell 10% in adult men but nonsignificantly in adult women. Between 1995 and 2011–2012, the proportion of energy from SSBs* (including 100% juice) declined 10% in adult men and 20% in women. More marked changes were observed in children aged 2–18 y. Data from national grocery sales indicated that per capita added-sugars intakes derived from carbonated soft drinks fell 26% between 1997 and 2011 (from 23 to 17 g/d) with similar trends for noncarbonated beverages… The findings challenge the widespread belief that energy from added sugars or sugars in solution are uniquely linked to the prevalence of obesity.

Both children and teens, and adults, are drinking significantly fewer sweet beverages and more unsweetened beverages and water. This fall in sweetened beverage consumption is far in excess of the kind of change sugar tax advocates claim will result if they get their way — the Mexican tax was assumed to reduce consumption by 10%, just over a third of the fall that’s happened without a sugar tax in Australia between 1997 and 2011 alone.

But what happened while we were reducing our sugar intake from beverages (and we were drinking less alcohol, another big source of calories) in the decades up to 2011? The prevalence of overweight and obesity increased from 56.3% in 1995 to 62.7% in 2011-12.

The reflects what a small role soft drinks play in our kilojoule consumption: according to a CSIRO study (though carried out for the Beverages Council) adults get just over one-third of their daily energy intake from discretionary/treat foods and drinks; soft drinks are ranked seventh on that list in terms of contribution. For kids, who get 42% of their energy intake from discretionary foods, soft drinks are also around seventh. Top of the list for energy intake from drinks for adults is alcohol — although as we’ve seen, Australians’ consumption of alcohol has been falling significantly in recent decades too.

[The government is right: sugar tax is rotten policy]

What sugar and alcohol also have in common is that the public health industry is deploying the same tactics with both. Call it “tobaccoisation”: constant demonisation of a product as a massive contributor to ill health, one being consumed in vast and destructive quantities, that requires urgent government intervention — big tax hikes, advertising bans, restrictions on use — on the basis that Australians can’t be trusted to make decisions for themselves.

There’s a fundamental difference between tobacco and sugar and alcohol, and for that matter other demonised products like junk food, salt or fat: there’s no safe level of consumption of tobacco; its mere use is harmful. But other products can and are used by Australians moderately and in healthful amounts. Indeed, contrary to the relentless campaigning by the public health industry and a supportive media, Australians are among the world’s longest-lived people, and we are staying healthy for longer than ever.

The Turnbull government was quite correct to reject out-of-hand calls for a sugar tax. There is simply no evidence that sugar taxes reduce kilojoule consumption from beverages, and no evidence that reducing such consumption would make a difference to obesity. The New Zealand Ministry of Health recently commissioned an independent report to identify evidence of the effectiveness of sugar taxes in improving outcomes. The report was released just last week. Its conclusions are devastating for sugar tax advocates: “the evidence that sugar taxes improve health is weak.”

Time to stop demanding that Australians be subjected to punitive taxes because their lifestyle choices don’t fit with nanny state fantasies.

 

*stands for Sugar Sweetened Beverage

Peter Fray

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