No doubt some of our nation's parliamentarians woke up this morning to find their New Year's resolutions didn't make it through the night. No matter. Here's a suggestion that should sustain them for the full 12 months ahead: make this the year Canberra slaps a tax on sugar.
Excessive consumption of added sugar is one of the greatest preventable threats to our nation's health. It is linked to obesity, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, dental disease and even, some studies suggest, depression. It is addictive, it disproportionately impacts on the poor, and it is often hidden.
Just because you don't see it listed on the ingredients doesn't mean it's not there. Sugar goes by 42 different names in the Australian food and beverage industries, some of them – turbinado, for example – utterly unrecognisable to those of us who don't wear a white lab coat to work.
Just as the negative impacts of alcohol and tobacco have been ameliorated to some degree by a regime of targeted taxation, so too should sugar be seen as a threat to our wellbeing, and treated accordingly.
The Australian Beverages Council, which represents some of the country's largest softdrink makers, believes it matters too. "The constant scrutiny and criticism of sugar-sweetened beverages remains the industry's most pressing and serious ongoing risk," one industry figure wrote in the council's annual report last year.
Sadly, that same report also noted that through the council's concerted lobbying, the threat has been neutralised for now. "Politically, we have strengthened our profile with various politicians both in Canberra and in state parliaments," wrote chief executive Geoff Parker. "Naturally senior bureaucrats are equally as important to engage with and our outreach has extended to many departmental offices."
The council has campaigned vigorously to ensure Australia does not follow the lead of Mexico, which introduced a 10 per cent tax on sugary drinks in January 2014 in an effort to combat its growing obesity problem. It has argued that Australians' intake of sugary drinks is declining anyway, as a result of lower-sugar offerings, smaller packaging sizes and sugar substitutes, all instigated by the industry without the need for heavy-handed intervention.
Be that as it may, our consumption of added sugar remains dangerously high. While the average intake in Australia is at the upper end of the World Health Organisation's recommended maximum (13 teaspoons a day), more than half of Australians exceed that amount.
The biggest consumers are teenage males. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, the top 10 per cent of 14-18 year-olds consumed at least 38 teaspoons of sugar a day in 2011-12. It seems an impossible amount, until you realise that just one 600-millilitre bottle of Coca-Cola contains 16 teaspoons.
Taxing sugar would put money back into the health system, which strains to cope with sugar-related illness. It might also provide funding for education about sugar's risks, preventative health interventions and dietary advice for those most at risk.
No new tax is easy to swallow, for consumers or politicians. But we believe it's necessary to address the true cost of an additive that has begun to leave a sour taste in the mouth.
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