In three years, Australia will reach a grim milestone when it's projected a third of adults will be clinically obese. It's worth repeating. In 2025, a third of the projected adult population in Australia will be clinically obese. This means more preventable chronic disease, more burden on a health system under pressure, and a lesser quality of life for millions of Australians.
Obesity is a major risk factor for chronic and preventable conditions including type 2 diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, stroke, gall bladder disease, osteoarthritis, sleep apnoea and respiratory problems, mental health disorders and some cancers. After tobacco, obesity is the second biggest modifiable risk factor contributing to the disease burden in Australia.
Evidence shows a strong link between obesity, type 2 diabetes and sugary drink consumption, which is why the Australian Medical Association is calling for a tax on sugary soft drinks and we're calling on the federal government to include the measure in this week's federal budget.
It's not a new idea. More than 60 countries and jurisdictions have implemented a tax on sugary drinks.
Countries that already have a sugar tax include Chile; Mexico; Panama; Ecuador; Peru; South Africa; Morocco; Portugal; Spain; France; UK; Ireland; Norway; Finland; Estonia; Latvia; Poland; Hungary; Saudi Arabia; Oman; India; Thailand; Malaysia, the Philippines and a number of jurisdictions in the USA including Berkley, California.
In Chile - a nation beset by obesity - sales of sugary drinks dropped by nearly a quarter in two years after the country introduced a set of tough new obesity prevention policies in 2016.
A study from the University of North Carolina found that purchases of sugary drinks in Chile fell by 23.7 per cent after the regulation was implemented. The biggest fall was seen in purchases of sweetened fruit drinks and sweetened dairy drinks.
Separate research reported that the UK sugar tax implemented in April 2018 has been associated with "a considerable impact" on the soft drinks industry itself, particularly with regard to the amount of sugar in products.
In the first two years after introduction of the tax in Mexico there was an estimated 7.6 per cent reduction in household purchases of taxed beverages.
A map of all the countries and jurisdictions that have implemented a sugar tax is now on our #SicklySweet campaign website - as well as details of case studies, which highlight the success of a sugar tax. The AMA is also calling for the public to contact their local MP and show their support for a tax, which they can do through our #SicklySweet website.
I don't believe any one of us would happily stir eight to 12 teaspoons of sugar into a drink before swallowing it. Yet that's how much we consume with the average 375ml can of soft drink. In total Australians drink an astounding 2.4 billion litres of sugary drinks each year.
We don't get to choose how much sugar manufacturers tip into their drink recipes, but we can signal to them that time's up on this with this excise and customs tax.
Our modelling projects a tax of 40 cents on every 100 grams of sugar added to soft drinks would reduce consumption by 31 per cent by 2025-26, and result in government revenue of $2.8 billion across four years, which could be used for further preventative health activities.
The tax would introduce a small price signal - an increase of just 16 cents on that 375 ml can of soft drink - to alert us that these drinks are bad for us and to nudge us to choose the refreshing, free, readily available, healthy alternative instead: water.
For this modest rise, we'd see a dramatic impact: our sugar consumption from soft drinks would drop by 12 to 18 per cent. This would result in 16,000 fewer cases of type 2 diabetes, 4400 fewer cases of heart disease and 1100 fewer cases of stroke.
That's some serious inroads into the nation's disease burden in a just couple of generations (a 25-year period) - and a big improvement in our national health.
With the extra $814 million to $749 million generated each year, we could enact integrated preventative health strategies across local, state and federal jurisdictions - something that eludes us to this day to my frustration.
Finally, the beauty of this tax is that it will have minimal impact on Australia's sugar industry, as about 80 per cent of Australia's domestic sugar production is exported and only about 5 per cent goes into sugary drinks. So, sugar producers have little to fear and even less to lose.
The AMA is not alone in supporting a tax on sugary soft drinks. Most health organisations also support the proposal, and the Rethink Sugary Drink alliance, which the AMA has joined, is also calling for a levy, and not just on sugary soft drinks, but other drinks containing sugar.
Despite this, both major political parties have shied away from the measure. This is likely due to a reluctance to negatively impact the likes of the food and beverage industry as well as the sugarcane industry.
The government also considers the problem one of personal responsibility, preferring education and information type interventions. Alone, such interventions are unlikely to have much impact especially in the face of the sophisticated advertisements targeting young people that we see each summer, and that our #SicklySweet campaign has highlighted.
With the federal budget there will be much talk about the tensions between government expenditure and deficit. Yet the beauty of this measure is that involves neither. It raises revenue while costing government nothing, saves future health system burdens, and helps make the population healthier and more productive. It's also supported by the public, which with an election around the corner, should make it an obvious choice for both major political parties.
Sign up for our newsletter to stay up to date.