Doctors and consumer advocates have condemned the softdrink industry’s plan to curb the sugar content of its products, calling it a ploy that will do nothing to stop Australia’s obesity crisis.
The Australian Beverage Council announced last week that its members would cut sugar by 20% across their drink ranges. The council’s chief executive Geoff Parker said the adjustment would be “costly” and “really hard” for drink makers.
Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt, who attended the announcement in Canberra, applauded the step. He said it was, to his knowledge, “the most significant change in food or beverage formulation in Australia” and would rein in the nation’s sugar habit.
But critics say the pledge is something of a “filtered cigarettes moment”, designed to fend off calls for stronger action on advertising, health warnings and a possible sugar tax.
They say manufacturers could meet the target for a 20% drop in sugar from 2015 levels by 2025 by riding existing trends to sell more bottled water and low-sugar lines, leaving high-sugar products as they are.
“Without stronger mandatory action, including a 20% health levy and clearer nutrition labelling, it’s unlikely that this pledge will do anything to deter people from drinking existing high-sugar drinks,” Jane Martin, executive manager of the Obesity Policy Coalition, said.
The “health levy”, or sugar tax, is about “nudging people – especially children – away from unhealthy options and encouraging healthier choices”, she said.
“Soft drinks and other sugary drinks have no place in a healthy, balanced diet.”
AMA President Dr Tony Bartone said the industry’s plan was too little, too late.
“First of all, the proposal talks about 2025. Seven years is far too long a period, far too down in the future, to be really of any benefit today,” he said.
“We’ve got a problem today. It’s a crisis, an epidemic. We need to do something now. But the main products, the product line particular leaders, are still going to have the same content of sugar.”
Dr Bartone said the lesson learned overseas was the need for more public education about the health burden of sugar consumption, as well as a signal at the point of sale to make consumers pause before buying sugary drinks, he said.
“And that’s a sugar tax, and that’s what we’ve seen working in Mexico, the US, in many countries of Europe, and that’s what really needs to happen here.”
He said the beverage industry was under pressure to make significant changes in formulations. Some softdrinks were so heavily sugared, a 20% cut would make little difference, he added.
The Obesity Coalition’s Ms Martin said the beverage makers’ pledge was about increasing sales of low- and no-sugar products, not reducing sugar in other products.
“We will not see the reduction in sugar consumption that we need to curb Australia’s obesity epidemic,” she said.
Cuts in sugar content made since 2015 will count towards the industry’s 20% target. Coca-Cola Amatil says it has already achieved a 10% reduction.
Sugar taxes were in force in 26 countries in 2017, with another five following suit this year.
In Australia, the idea is firmly opposed by the powerful farm lobby and has been ruled out by both major political parties.
Asked if the government would press softdrink makers to cut sugar levels further, Mr Hunt said: “We’ll talk in 2025.”