Right: bottled water, at times derided as an over-priced alternative to water from a tap, is often more expensive than soft drinks.'
Arguments in favour of placing a tax on soft drinks and other sweetened beverages
1. Obesity and overweight, including among children and adolescents, is a growing health risk in Australia
Figures supplied by Monash University's Department of Medicine, Nursing and Health Sciences indicate that Australia is currently ranked as one of the fattest nations in the developed world. The prevalence of obesity in Australia has more than doubled in the past 20 years.
Fourteen million Australians are overweight or obese. If national weight gain continues at current levels, by 2025, 80% of all Australian adults and a third of all children will be overweight or obese.
Obesity has overtaken smoking as the leading cause of premature death and illness in Australia. Obesity has become the single biggest threat to public health in Australia.
On the basis of present trends it is predicted that by the time Australia's children and adolescents reach the age of 20 they will have a shorter life expectancy than earlier generations simply because of obesity.
Some of the diseases associated with obesity include diabetes, stroke and vascular disease, high blood pressure, asthma, sleep apnoea, cardiovascular disease and kidney disease.
2. Soft drinks and other sweetened beverages are key contributors to obesity and ill-health
It has been claimed that these beverages are key contributors to obesity and ill-health in Australia for a number of reasons.
Firstly, soft drinks and other sweetened beverages are very popular and widely-consumed. Sugar-sweetened carbonated beverages, or soft drinks, are the most popular water-based beverages in Australia. International market research data indicates Australia is ranked among the top 10 countries for per capita consumption of soft drinks.
Secondly, these drinks are very high in sugar content, which should be consumed only occasionally. One 600ml soft drink contains on average 16 teaspoons of sugar and a daily dose is estimated to lead to a 6.75kg weight gain each year. One 375ml can contains ten teaspoons of sugar and 640 kJ (150 cal). These drinks provide no other nutritional value other than fluid, that is, their calorie load is made up of so-called 'empty' calories. This means that though these drinks are relatively high in calories, they have no nutrients such as protein, vitamins or minerals.
Craig Sinclair, chairman of the public health committee at Cancer Council Australia, has claimed, 'You are really just getting a vehicle for the delivery of sugar without any nutritional benefit whatsoever.'
These drinks are identified as an 'extra' food in The Australian Guide to Healthy Eating, that is, a food that should be consumed only 'occasionally' and 'in small amounts'. 'Occasionally' has been defined as 'once a week or less' by The Communication on Obesity Action for Child Health.
Thirdly, a number of studies have directly linked markers of ill-health among children with their consumption of soft drinks. Initial signs of heart disease have been observed in children as young as 12 who have a high intake of sugary drinks. Narrowed blood vessels inside the eye are a known precursor to cardiovascular disease in adults. In 2012, nearly 2000 12-year-olds had retinal images taken at the Centre for Vision Research at Sydney University. Narrowing of the retinal arteries was seen in those children with an intake of more than 274 grams of carbohydrates a day. A major source of those carbohydrates came from soft drinks or cordial.
In addition, high consumption of soft drinks and other sugary drinks are associated with a number of other health problems, including type 2 diabetes, osteoporosis and dental caries.
3. The consumption of soft drinks and other sweetened beverages is excessive and increasing
Australians consume an excessive amount of soft drink and other sweetened beverages and the amount being consumed has grown greater.
Per-capita consumption of carbonated and aerated beverages, including sugar-sweetened and artificially sweetened or 'diet' drinks, in 1998-99 was 113.0 litres annually. This equated to an increase of 240 per cent over the preceding 30 years.
The soft drink industry reported that the average per capita consumption of soft drinks in 2003 was 110 litres. This amount equates to approximately 300 ml of soft drink (regular and diet) consumed per person, per day. The small decline in per capita consumption of soft drinks between 1999 and 2003 has been attributed to a growth in consumption of artificially sweetened (diet) soft drinks.
Apart from diet soft drinks, other growth areas in water-based beverages in Australia include sports drinks, drink mixers (used with alcoholic drinks) and energy drinks. These are also sugar-sweetened.
Studies have shown that the consumption of all sugar-sweetened drinks by children increases with age. Most of this increase was due to soft drink consumption, with similar intakes of cordials, fruit juices and fruit drinks across age groups.
For children of all ages (2-18 years), the largest contributor to sugar-sweetened drinks consumption was soft drinks, followed by cordials, fruit juice, fruit drinks and sports drinks.
Similarly for adults, the largest contributor to sugar-sweetened drinks was soft drinks, followed by fruit juice, fruit drinks, cordials and sports drinks.
A study of food intake in toddlers in Western Sydney as part of the Childhood Asthma Prevention Study (CAPS) found that sugary beverages (excluding fruit juice) contributed substantially to energy and carbohydrate intakes. On average, soft drinks were consumed on alternate days by 29 per cent of the children aged 16-24 months.
Adolescents, particularly males, consume the most soft drink, with per-consumer consumption in these groups reaching almost a litre per day. Soft drinks contribute up to 10% of energy intake in adolescents.
Figures such as these indicate that soft drinks and other sweetened beverages are being consumed too regularly and in too large quantities. Such drinks are contributing a disproportionate amount to the average Australian's calorie load and this is a problem found even among very young children.
4. Soft drinks and other sweetened beverages are vigorously promoted to children and adolescents
It has been claimed that one of the reasons for taxing soft drinks and thus increasing their price is to counter the effect of extensive advertising of soft drinks and other sweetened beverages,
Soft drink companies use a wide variety of marketing techniques to increase sales. These techniques include easy accessibility in a wide variety of venues; heavy media advertising; sponsorships of concerts and professional organisations; targeting of schools, for example, through vending machines; tie-ins with movies and music groups and merchandise.
Soft drink manufacturers in Australia have recently introduced polices which state their intention not to market their products directly to young children. However, indirect marketing (for example, through product placement, marketing through websites and promotions, and exposure to marketing directed at older children and adults) may undermine the effectiveness of these policies.
Television is a medium through which children are commonly exposed to food marketing. Two studies conducted in 2007, indicated that food marketers advertise heavily during children's programming in Australia. While studies conducted in 1994 and 2004 showed that soft drink is consistently featured near the top of the list of advertised food items in different countries, including Australia.
A 2006 study of children aged 5-6 years and 10-12 years in Melbourne showed that children who watched TV for more than two hours per day were 2.3 times more likely to consume one serve or more per day of high-energy drinks than children who watched less television.
Craig Sinclair, chairman of the public health committee at Cancer Council Australia, has claimed, there is 'something inherently not right' in having Coca-Cola and Powerade sponsor events like school rugby and junior soccer, and it is only a matter of time before tobacco-style bans on direct marketing to children are introduced for unhealthy food.
5. Cost is a significant factor in determining the consumption of soft drinks and sweetened beverages
A number of studies have shown that nutrient-poor, sweetened beverages are relatively cheaper than higher quality drinks and foodstuffs. It is claimed that this relatively lower price encourages their consumption, especially among children and the economically disadvantaged.
A study conducted in 2007 concluded that the obesity-promoting capacity of different beverages is linked not so much to their sugar content but their low price. That is, soft drinks and other sweetened beverages will be consumed in greater quantities and thus contribute to higher levels of overweight and obesity because they are cheaper and thus more readily affordable.
A British study conducted in 2006 concluded that cost was an important determinant of carbonated soft drink consumption, as opposed to fruit juice and still fruit drinks, in children aged 13-14 years.
It has further been suggested that the revenues generated through taxing soft drinks and other sweetened beverages could be used to help fund education programs and advertising campaigns designed to make all consumers, including children, aware of the health dangers associated with excessive consumption of these drinks.
It has also been noted that increasing the cost of other hazardous products through taxation has succeeded in reducing consumption.
On January 18, 2013, the ABC opinion site, The Drum, published an opinion piece by John Fitzgerald. Dr Fitzgerald is an Associate Professor in public health at the University of Melbourne. Dr Fitzgerald has stated, 'Taxation has also been used to curb alcohol use. From 1992-97, the Northern Territory introduced a small levy on drinks of greater than 3 per cent alcohol content. The levy and the Living With Alcohol program it was used to fund reduced alcohol-attributable deaths (as well as Indigenous deaths). More recently, the Federal Government selectively increased tax on alcopops with a notable impact on subsequent consumption.'