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Media Release: No sugar tax, lack of action on obesity

27 February 2017

Last week the Turnbull government announced that it would not support a sugar tax to tackle obesity stating that, unlike Labor, “we don’t believe increasing the family grocery bill at the supermarket is the answer to this challenge” [1]. Fact check: In Mexico, based on a sugar tax of 10%, sales of sugary drinks reduced by 17%, whilst sales of bottled water and beverages with no added sugar increased by 4% [2]. So it would seem that the tax in Mexico had the desired effect without increasing net spending on beverages. In Australia, there is already evidence of soft drink sales falling as a result of growing public awareness about added sugar [3], suggesting great potential for a concerted public health effort to reduce empty calories in food and beverages, given that the public is already responding positively to the issue.

The Australasian Society of Lifestyle Medicine (ASLM) can only offer conditional support for a sugar tax in that it would be a simplistic instrument, but much better than doing nothing. Ideally such a tax would be supported by a comprehensive package of measures at all levels of society, policy and education.

Garry Egger AM, Vice President of ASLM and Professor of Health Sciences at Southern Cross University says, “Calls for a sugar tax are reminiscent of calls for a fat tax in the 1990s, which led manufacturers to reduce fat (and claim this on branding) in processed foods like breakfast cereals, while adding sugar to compensate for loss of taste.”  

ASLM does however advocate for a more sophisticated ‘energy density’ tax, which takes into account the total energy content of foods, and which would help prevent manufacturers stepping around the issue.

President of ASLM, Dr Hamish Meldrum says, “A sugar tax in itself will not be enough for the cultural change that is needed to significantly reduce obesity. Other public policies will need to be pursued, such as a more comprehensive tax on energy dense food, improved food labelling for transparency and consumer education, and urban planning for increased opportunities for physical activity.”

Egger says, “Scapegoating one dietary ingredient as the cause of obesity is too simplistic. There is abundant evidence to suggest that it is the consumption of all energy-dense nutrients (food volume), including added sugars, underpinning the modern obesity epidemic [4].”

Apparently the Turnbull government’s commitment to tackling obesity lies in their existing programmes, and in a soon to be announced, ‘new focus on preventive health that will give people the right tools and information to live active and healthy lives’. Nine years since obesity was added to the National Health Priority Areas, this reassurance is unconvincing in light of a bi-partisan political failure to adequately address the rapidly increasing epidemic of overweight and obesity. Dr Meldrum says, “Existing measures are not even coming close to addressing the scale and trajectory of the obesity and chronic disease epidemic in Australia.” ASLM supports a society-wide, multi-system approach. As Professor Garry Egger outlines in No more blame game: why we need to rethink what’s behind chronic disease, we promote a new way of looking at chronic disease, one that takes into account social, environmental and other factors [5]. The human cost of obesity is demonstrated by the prediction that today’s children will be the first generation to live shorter lives than their parents [6], let alone the spiralling health care burden of more people living with chronic disease. Further reading:
  1. Commonwealth of Australia, The Hon. Greg Hunt MP. (2016). Turnbull Government committed to tackling obesity [Press release]. Retrieved from
  2. Colchero MA, Popkin BM, Rivera JA, Ng SW. Beverage purchases from stores in Mexico under the excise tax on sugar sweetened beverages: observational study. BMJ, 2016; 352. doi:10.1136/bmj.h6704.
  5. Egger G, Dixon J. (2016, December 20). No more blame game: why we need to rethink what’s behind chronic disease. Retrieved from
  6. Olshansky JS et al. A Potential Decline in Life Expectancy in the United States in the 21st Century. NEJM, 2005; 352:1138-1145. doi: 10.1056/NEJMsr043743
For further information and media enquiries, please contact Stephen Penman at ASLM on 1300 673 643 or .