Health experts weigh in on the Australian Beverage Council’s sugar pledge

Amanda Lyons

26/06/2018 2:48:35 PM

Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt has backed an industry plan to reduce sugar use in non-alcoholic beverages – but many in the healthcare community argue this approach is not enough.

Healthcare advocates are not satisfied by the Australian Beverage Council pledge to reduce sugar in non-alcoholic drinks.
Healthcare advocates are not satisfied by the Australian Beverage Council pledge to reduce sugar in non-alcoholic drinks.

The Australian Beverages Council announced earlier this week a commitment to reduce its use of sugar in drinks by 20% by 2025.
‘It’s about increasing choice for consumers, and to provide options for people to be able to reduce sugar through their favourite drinks,’ Australian Beverages Council Chief Executive Geoff Parker told Sky News.
However, many believe a closer look at the proposal highlights the ways it lets the industry ‘off the hook’ without having to make much compromise.
For example, the 20% sugar reduction is actually measured as an average amount across the industry’s aggregated sales volume. This means many sugary drinks potentially will not need be to changed in any way.
‘No real reformulation will be required. A company could reduce its use of sugar simply by producing and selling more low-kilojoule soft drinks or bottled water,’ Craig Sinclair, spokesperson for healthcare and consumer advocacy organisation Rethink Sugary Drink, said.
Furthermore, the reformulation of some drinks according to the pledge would not make enough of a difference to meet sugar-consumption guidelines.
‘A 600 ml [can] of Coca-Cola contains 16 teaspoons of sugar, so even a 20% sugar decrease would still mean more than 12 teaspoons of sugar – still over the daily World Health Organization recommendation,’ Sinclair said.
Another issue some have raised is the pledge’s comparatively long timeframe.
‘The UK achieved these sorts of reductions within two years of announcing a sugar tax. There is simply no reason we cannot do this in a much shorter time,’ Professor Bruce Neal from the George Institute for Public Health told The Age.
‘We need a really clear explanation as to why Australians should have to wait for seven years.’
In addition, the pledge is not binding and leaves the responsibility for sugar reduction entirely in the hands of the beverages industry.
‘The fact that the system is voluntary is poor public health practice,’ Public Health Association of Australia Chief Executive Terry Slevin said.
‘We’ve seen this problem with other voluntary industry codes, such as the Health Star Rating. It’s clear we need strong legislative action to reduce the harms of unhealthy food and drink to the population.’
Many health advocates believe the implementation of a ‘sugar tax’ would be a better way to combat the public health issues arising from too much sugar in our diets.
‘It’s been working in Mexico, in the USA, in many countries in Europe, and that’s what really needs to happen here,’ President of the Australian Medical Association, GP Dr Tony Bartone, told ABC Radio Melbourne.
‘And this announcement [by the Council] is, I believe, just an attempt to try and get in before some of the ongoing positive pressure that’s being exerted to get them to change their formulations and make some significant inroads in this area [takes effect].’
However, the Federal Government is not in favour of such a tax, and Minister Greg Hunt was supportive of the Australian Beverages Council announcement.
‘If you can work with the industry and get an outcome such as this, you get exactly the outcome we all want: healthier products, healthier children, and healthier adults,’ he said.
Although the RACGP is broadly supportive of a sugar tax, President Dr Bastian Seidel has previously said he believes the Federal Government’s antipathy towards such a policy means it might be necessary to look at other solutions.
A commonly cited example is last year’s agreement between the Singaporean Government and a group of drinks manufacturers, including Coca-Cola and Nestle, to remove drinks containing more than 12% sugar from their portfolios by 2020.
‘If you can do this in Singapore why can’t you do this in Australia?’ Dr Seidel said last year.
‘It’s in the industry’s interest, it’s in the politicians’ interest and it certainly would be in the interests of medical organisations such as the RACGP.
‘It would be a common sense approach in the right direction and everybody wins.’

Australian Beverage Council sugar tax sugary drinks

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