February 11 - 17, 2024: Issue 613


Public Health Leaders Unite To Call For Health Levy On Sugary Drinks: Rethink Sugary Drink Alliance Launched - Unhealthy Food Marketing To Children Report Due June 2024

Leading Australian public health organisations are calling for a 20 per cent health levy on sugary drink manufacturers, with new research revealing the policy could reduce Australians’ annual sugar intake by 2.6 kilograms per person and raise billions of dollars for health initiatives.

Members of the Rethink Sugary Drink alliance — including the Australian Medical Association (AMA), Cancer Council Australia, the Australian Dental Association, Food for Health Alliance, and Heart Foundation — have launched a new position statement in Canberra on Monday February 5 urging the government to introduce the 20 per cent health levy on sugary drink manufacturers.

The statement is backed by new AMA research that found a 20 per cent health levy on sugary drinks could raise around $1 billion each year, which could be used to fund crucial obesity prevention and other health initiatives.

AMA President Professor Steve Robson said the research also showed the policy could slash the amount of sugar Australians consume every year by nearly 2.6 kilograms per person, which is approximately 650 teaspoons of sugar.

“This policy really is a no brainer — it would raise vital funds for preventive health and protect Australians’ health by decreasing the risk of diseases linked to excess weight like heart disease, type 2 diabetes, stroke, and some cancers,” Professor Robson said.

“Our modelling shows that a 20 per cent health levy on sugary drink manufacturers could raise around $4 billion over four years. These funds could be invested into crucial health promotion campaigns, reducing pressure on our stretched health system.”

“Research also shows there could be 4,400 fewer cases of heart disease, 16,000 fewer cases of type 2 diabetes, and 1,100 fewer strokes over 25 years if government takes this step.”

Cancer Council Australia CEO, Professor Tanya Buchanan, explained that sugary drinks are energy dense but provide no nutritional value. Consuming more kilojoules than the body needs can lead to weight gain and obesity, a leading risk factor for 13 types of cancer.

“The Australian Government must put the community first, following in the footsteps of more than 100 countries and jurisdictions that already have a health levy on sugary drinks. Success stories from places like the UK, South Africa and Mexico combined with a robust evidence base show us this policy can make a real difference to diets and health here in Australia.”

“Importantly, we know a health levy encourages manufacturers to reformulate their drink products to contain less sugar, resulting in healthier beverages and better health outcomes.

“With the rate of obesity-related cancers in Australia increasing, we can no longer afford to wait.”

Dr Angie Nilsson, Federal Board Director at Australian Dental Association, added that over time the policy would also improve health equity and dental health in Australia.

“We know that just one 600mL bottle of soft drink can pack a shocking 16 teaspoons of sugar and is highly acidic. Frequently gulping down sugary drinks can increase the risk of issues including tooth decay, sensitivity and erosion.”

“Looking to countries that already have a health levy, like Mexico, it's clear that this policy can have a positive impact on population smiles as well as diets, with the greatest dental health benefits likely to be experienced by Australians from lower socio-economic backgrounds.”

Food for Health Alliance’s Executive Manager, Jane Martin, said that strong support exists at a community level for a health levy.

“We know Australians want to see change, with our research showing 77 per cent would support a health levy on sugary drinks if the funds raised were reinvested into crucial obesity prevention efforts. Between this support and undeniable health and economic gains, what are we waiting for?”

Heart Foundation’s National Manager of Public and Local Affairs, Peter Thomas, said government action to address harmful sugar consumption would benefit Australians’ heart health.

“Healthier diets are key to reducing risk of heart disease, Australia’s number one killer. With sugary drinks currently the biggest source of sugar in our diets, a 20 per cent health levy on companies who manufacture these products is urgently needed to protect our nation’s heart health,” he concluded.

Read the AMA’s report

Read the position statement

The campaign aligns with the Member for Mackellar, Dr. Sophie Scamps call for regulation of advertising aimed at children. Dr. Scamps Healthy Kids Advertising Bill 2023 aims to protect children from junk food marketing by removing ads from TV and radio between the hours of 6am and 930pm. Dr. Scamps has stated the Bill would also place an outright ban on paid junk food marketing on social media and other online environments.

The Bill has the support of the Australian Medical Association (AMA), Dietitians Australia, Diabetes Australia, the Cancer Council, the Food for Health Alliance, the Public Health Association of Australia, The Royal Australasian College of Physicians and The Royal Australian College of General Practitioners.

Dr Scamps, a former GP and emergency room doctor, said she was compelled to act due to the increasing prevalence of childhood obesity and chronic disease, with obesity estimated to cost the health system $11.8 billion every year. Dr Scamps also said a large number of parents in her Mackellar electorate had raised concerns about the predatory targeting of their children by junk food companies.

“Right now a quarter of our children are already on the path to chronic disease because they are over the healthy weight range” Dr Scamps said.

“We know our children are exposed to over 800 junk food ads on TV alone every year, and that there is a direct link between those ads and childhood obesity. The current restrictions are not strong enough, and self-regulation is just not working.”

“If we continue to stand by while children are deluged by junk food advertising on social media and on TV, then we are failing them,” said Dr Scamps MP.

The Bill was seconded by Independent MP and former paediatrician Dr Monique Ryan on June 19, 2023.

Broadcasting Services Amendment (Healthy Kids Advertising) Bill 2023: Government's response

The Government is aware of concerns around the impact of marketing and advertising of unhealthy foods to children, and the criticism of the current industry self-regulation system.

The Federal Budget 2022-23 included $500,000 over two years (2022-23 to 2023-24) to support a feasibility study to explore the current landscape of unhealthy food marketing and advertising to children and consider options for implementing restrictions in Australia.

The study will provide a better understanding of the regulatory and nonregulatory options available to limit such marketing and advertising to children, as well the costs and benefits of these options, with recommendations to be provided to Government.

The first stage of the study involves literature reviews of the harms of marketing and advertising of unhealthy food to children, international approaches to restriction of unhealthy food marketing and advertising and approaches used to restrict alcohol and gambling marketing and advertising.

The Department of Health and Aged Care has policy oversight of the feasibility study. The work will involve consultation and collaboration with other relevant Australian and state and territory government agencies, as well as public health, and food and advertising industry stakeholders.

After an open tender procurement process the University of Wollongong was contracted to undertake the study. A contract with University of Wollongong to deliver the study was executed on 12 April 2023. The project team includes sector experts in both the field of unhealthy food marketing to children and health economic analysis. The final report is due by June 2024.

Why is the Bill needed?

  • A quarter (24%) of Australian children are obese or overweight, while research shows 63% of Australian adults are either overweight or obese.
  • Obesity is one of the leading causes of chronic health diseases such as Type 2 Diabetes, stroke, kidney disease, some forms of cancer and heart disease.
  • The National Obesity Strategy found obesity costs the Australian health system $11.8 billion per year and this could rise to $87.7 billion by 2032 if nothing is done
  • There is community support for this measure – polling by The Australia Institute found two-thirds (66%) believe junk food advertising should be banned during children’s viewing hours.

Why regulate junk food advertising?

Research shows there is a direct link between junk food advertising to children and childhood obesity.

  • The average child aged 5 to 8 years old is exposed to at least 827 unhealthy food advertisements on television each year. Another study suggested children see an average of up to 168 junk food ads every week, and 100 of which do not meet nutrient profiling criteria.
  • More than $550 million is spent on advertising food and non-alcoholic drinks in Australia, with the majority of promoted products high in fat, sugar, and salt. [See the National Obesity Strategy report page 38].
  • Research from 2018, suggests restricting junk food advertising on TV between the hours of 6 am and 9.30 pm would result in $778 million in healthcare savings over the lifetime of the 2010 Australian population.
  • ABS data shows 40% of kids aged 5-14 spend between 10 and 19 hours a week on “screen-based activities” and 24% spend over 20 hours a week watching TV and scrolling online.

Do any other countries regulate junk food advertising, and does it work?

Approximately 40 countries including the UK, Ireland, Chile, Norway, Mexico, Thailand, and South Korea, already have or are planning to regulate junk food advertising.

In Chile, where junk food advertising is banned on TV from 6am to 10pm, there has been a 73% drop in children’s exposure to junk food ads. While a study of grocery purchasing habits founds there was a 24% decrease in calories purchased in the first year of the ban.

Rethink Sugary Drink Alliance Launch: Parliament House Doorstop

Photo: AMA

Transcript: Parliament House doorstop AMA President, Professor Stephen Robson, Cancer Council Australia's CEO, Professor Tanya Buchanan, Australian Dental Association Board Director, Dr Angie Nilsson, Executive Manager of Food for Health Alliance, Jane Martin

STEVE ROBSON: I'm Steve Robson, Federal President of the Australian Medical Association, and I'm here today with my colleagues from the Rethink Sugary Drink Alliance to launch our call on the government to institute a 20 per cent levy on the manufacturers of sugary drinks. Sugary drinks have little to no nutritional value at all. They don't fill you up. If you drink a sugary drink, you're not full and you're go on and keep eating. The consequences of sugar consumption in Australia are extraordinary. We have high rates and increasing rates of chronic disease, of obesity, of type two diabetes, and with those, heart disease, chronic tooth disease and decay, and stroke, as well as cancer.

So all of these things could be addressed by sending a signal to Australians about making a healthy choice. We believe in a model that a 20 per cent levy on the manufacturers of sugary drinks will give people a signal and direct them to drink healthy drinks. We believe that if the same outcomes occur as we've seen around the world that it could reduce individual sugar consumption by more than 2.5 kilos for every Australian every year. That would have massive dramatic effects and improve stuff over time. As one example, it's likely that if a levy like this would prevent half a million episodes of tooth decay over the following decade as well as having effects on rates of cancer, diabetes and other serious long-term diseases.

Importantly, a levy like this is likely to raise as much as $1 billion a year. And in a time in which health budgets are seriously constrained, it would be a massive injection of funding to other preventive health measures around this country. The World Health Organisation has called for all countries to have a levy like this, and the evidence from over 100 other countries, such as the UK, is that it works and has effects. We believe it's high time the Australian Government followed the advice, looked at what's happening overseas and made this choice, so we strongly support it.

I'm going to hand to my colleague Tanya Buchanan from Cancer Council Australia.

TANYA BUCHANAN: Hi everyone. My name is Tanya Buchanan. I'm the CEO at Cancer Council Australia, and we know that too much sugar in our diets can lead to weight gain and to obesity. And unfortunately, obesity is a risk factor in 13 different types of cancer. With nearly two in three Australians currently above a healthy weight, and with our rates of obesity related cancer on the rise, this is a really important policy because it encourages manufacturers to reduce the amount of sugar in their products, and that results in healthier outcomes for all Australians. I'm just going to hand over now to my colleague, Doctor Angie Nilsson from the Australian Dental Association.

ANGIE NILSSON: Thank you, Tanya. Just one bottle of 600 mls soft drink can contain 16 teaspoons of sugar and cause acidity to teeth. Soft drinks can damage teeth causing cavities, erosion and sensitivity. In Mexico, when a health levy was introduced, the clinicians were seeing less people coming in with cavities. Tooth decay is still Australia's most common preventable chronic disease in both children and adults. A health levy in Australia can prevent dental decay by half a million cases within ten years. I'd like to pass over to Jane Martin, Executive Manager of Food for Health Alliance.

JANE MARTIN: Thank you. Jane Martin, Executive Manager, Food for Health Alliance. This is a policy that's been implemented in more than 100 countries. Half the world's population have a health levy on manufacturers of sugary drinks. This is a no brainer for the Australian Government —77 per cent of Australians support this policy if the funds are invested in obesity prevention, so this is an economic bonus. It will encourage people to shift to healthier drinks and it will support the government to fund important prevention activities to improve the health of all Australians.

About Rethink Sugary Drink

Rethink Sugary Drink is a partnership between leading public health and community organisations across Australia who are committed to tackling the overconsumption of sugary drinks.

Frequent consumption of sugary drinks can cause tooth decay and excess weight, increasing the risk of serious diseases such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and 13 types of cancer.

To help curb consumption and improve Australians’ health, leading members of the Rethink Sugary Drink alliance are calling for a 20% health levy on sugary drink manufacturers.

Currently, Australia’s lagging behind more than 100 countries across the world that already have similar policies in place. It’s time for us to catch up

Members include: Apunipima Cape York Health Council, Australian Dental Association, Australian Dental and Oral Health Therapists’ Association, Australian Medical Association, Cancer Council Australia, Dental Health Services Victoria, Dental Hygienists Association of Australia, Diabetes Australia, Food for Health Alliance, Healthier Workplace WA, Heart Foundation, Kidney Health Australia, LiveLighter, Nutrition Australia, Parent’s Voice, Public Health Association Australia, Royal Australasian College of Dental Surgeons, Stroke Foundation, The Victorian Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation (VACCHO) and the YMCA.

Visit www.rethinksugarydrink.org.au for more information