Time to say no to sugar

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images
Parenting columnist Ian Munro sees the benefits of a sugar tax - particularly when it comes to the health of our kids.

Ian Munro
Ian Munro

It's Easter Sunday as I write. There's chocolate here, there's chocolate there, and the smell of spicy buns everywhere in-between.

It brought to mind one of the media themes of the last couple of weeks - sugar, the possibility of taxing soft drinks, and the outpouring of scorn from those with a vested interest in sugary drinks and food.

There's been the usual call from such groups for education rather than restriction and pronouncements that their millions of dollars' worth of advertising doesn't make people change their minds or buying habits.

We've now reached that point with sugar already reached with tobacco and alcohol. There's conclusive evidence of its seriously harmful effects. With sugar it's particularly our youngsters' dental and physical health and learning that are affected.

The evidence is strong that sugar is fuelling the childhood obesity "epidemic" and the increasing cost to our health system and poor educational outcomes require some sort of urgent action.

A February 2016 study published in the medical journal, Pediatrics, shows that "health warning labels on sugar-sweetened beverages improved parents' understanding of health harms associated with over-consumption", decreasing the likelihood of parents buying them for their children.

This is encouraging as they have no nutritional value and the excessive sugar content feeds and maintains a desire for sweet drinks.

However, the culprits aren't just soft drinks, so perhaps a soft drink tax is a little unfair, even if it is a start. We need an approach that casts a wider net.

Arguably, applying and increasing taxes is effective in reducing consumption. We could start with a tax based on added sugar content for all products, kicking in at a relatively high content level.

Every year that allowable content would be reduced before the tax applied. This would make it easier for manufacturers to gradually reduce the added-sugar content to an agreed acceptable untaxed level, while educating our palates along the way.

Some sort of monitoring would be needed to ensure that there weren't compensatory increases in other unhealthy additives, such as some fats and sodium.

As with tobacco and alcohol, there are other mechanisms that could be used, such as not allowing retailers to loss-lead on any high sugar content products and restricting advertising.

Health warnings on packets have point-of-purchase educational value so manufacturers should be comfortable with these.

We will need to exert considerable pressure on manufacturers and the Government, which will have considerable forces arrayed against it, to move forward on this for our kids' sake.



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