On the face of it, it’s hard to argue with the idea of “committing to reduce sugar in beverages”. Soft drinks are a clear culprit when it comes to rising levels of obesity in Australia, and if the Australian Beverages Council wants to start owning up to the role it plays in the crisis, this can only be a good thing.
Except that it’s not owning up to anything. The so-called commitment to slash sugar by 20 per cent over the next seven years is as transparent as a glass of lemonade. Or, for that matter, a bottle of water. The reduction will cover all categories of non-alcoholic beverages that are currently sold in Australia, including low-calorie drinks and water. Coke and its ilk will, of course, remain untouched, while the industry focuses instead on producing and marketing low-sugar alternatives.
Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt has grandly pronounced it "in my knowledge, the most significant change in food or beverage formulation in Australia". Well, given that we don’t yet have a sugar tax or significant restrictions on marketing sugary drinks to children, perhaps it is. But surely it doesn’t go far enough?
It’s already a given that soft drinks – high in sugar and empty calories – are a major culprit when it comes to growing levels of obesity all over the world. And the equally depressing counterpart to this fact is that public health awareness campaigns don’t seem to be working. If the beverages council concedes to this and is willing to do something, why won’t it go further?
Health experts have already slammed the sugar-slashing plan as a blatant attempt to stave off a sugar tax, by announcing a sugar-reduction process that is already in place.
Geoff Parker from the Australian Beverages Council has described the announcement as one that “crystallises what the industry has been doing for about two decades”. So what’s the point, then, and why will it take seven years?
Professor Bruce Neal from the George Institute for Public Health has pointed out that the proposed 20 per cent reduction was achieved in the UK just two years after introducing a sugar tax.
Is the government serious about addressing Australia’s growing obesity rates? And if it is, why is it so in thrall to bodies like the beverages council?
It’s too early to know how effective a sugar tax has been in those countries that have introduced it, and many arguments against such a tax invoke the effect such a tax would have on the poorest in society. But the days of personal responsibility for guzzling over-sweetened drinks will have to end soon.
But at least it can be said that by backing this move by the beverage council, the government is not doing nothing.
Mr Parker maintains that self-regulation is a better option, better than allowing governments to nose around people’s trolleys judging what’s in their pantries. He describes a proposed sugar tax as a “minority Greens policy”, one that’s been rejected by both major political parties.
It’s also a tax that has been implemented in more than 26 countries, and has the strong backing of the Australian Medical Association. Hardly fringe politics.