AMA Wages War On Sugar, Government Called to Take Action

A tax on sugar, advertising restrictions and a comprehensive education campaign are some of the appeals made by the Australian Medical Association (AMA) as a response to Australia’s health crisis. As bariatric and general surgeons on the frontline of obesity-related health issues, we firmly agree it is time to take a stance on nutritional health. More than half of all Australians are now at a weight which puts their health at risk, and poor nutrition is the second highest risk factor for early death after smoking. We look at the AMA’s recommendations, and the response so far.

This month, the AMA issued a statement calling for the Government at all levels to prioritise Australia’s nutrition and eating habits, calling for significant changes, including a comprehensive educational campaign implemented from all levels of government.

“Improving the nutrition and eating habits of Australians must become a priority for all levels of government,” AMA president Dr Michael Gannon said.
“You wouldn’t dream of putting 15 teaspoons of sugar in your tea or coffee,” he also told 9NEWS.
“But that’s what is hidden inside these drinks”

What the AMA is recommending

Here are some of their recommendations they made urging the government to consider the “full complement of measures available to them to support improved nutrition”:

  • SUGAR TAX. A tax on sugar-sweetened beverages “as a matter of priority”
  • AFFORDABLE FRESH FOOD. Fresh, minimally processed food made affordable for all.
  • NUTRITION FOCUS. The government should be spending more to improve guidelines, health literacy and behaviours, as well as improve research and data collection.
  • WATER FIRST. Water should be promoted as default beverage option.
  • RESPONSIBLE FOOD INDUSTRY. The food industry should be acting in a socially responsible manner in food promotion and marketing – especially towards children. Reducing unnecessary sugars, salts and fats from processed foods.
  • BETTER FOOD LABELLING. Improvement of Health Star Rating system, distinguishing between naturally occurring and added sugars.
  • ASSIST SPECIFIC GROUPS. The AMA has also called for specific recommendations to protect Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people; children and the elderly.
  • HEALTH CARERS LEAD BY EXAMPLE. Unhealthy vending machines removed from healthcare settings; access to healthy foods for all patients, staff and visitors.

We encourage you to read the AMA’s full nutrition position statement.

What has been the response so far on a sugar tax?

The Turnball Government has reportedly refused to tax sugar, despite Britain, Ireland, Belgium, France, Mexico, Fiji, South Africa and parts of the United States doing so in recent years.

The federal minister for agriculture and water resources, David Littleproud, said last week governments “should not dictate the diet of citizens”.

“People need to take personal responsibility,” he said. “Increasing the family grocery bill will not magically make Australians skinny.”…

“The AMA has made many sensible suggestions on this topic, but a soft drink tax is not one of them.”

The Australian Beverages Council has also naturally been opposed to the tax for some time. A Sydney Morning Herald report in October last year revealed the Australian Beverages Council, which represents the interests of many large soft drink makers, noted in its Annual Report it has been “consuming vast amounts of resources” to lobby politicians to oppose this tax.

Why should we intervene when it comes to nutrition?

You may ask “why should Australia be stepping in to tax sugar, educate the public, or restrict advertising? Isn’t it a person’s own choice what they eat and drink?” Australia’s obesity crisis is a national epidemic. We hear this so often, and yet, so often the blame is never attributed to more than the patient’s own choices. We believe there is so much more we can do as a national collective to help break the cycle of obesity and poor nutrition. As a society, we have an obligation to recognise that obesity is a disease, and should be treated as such.

If we compare it to smoking…

Initially, the risks for smoking were under-appreciated until repeated studies confirmed its deadliness in the mid-20th Century. Did this alone make people stop? No. Rates were at their highest at this time. A comprehensive report about tobacco in Australia attributes this rise in smoking numbers to:

  • Rising affluence
  • Progressive increases in marketing to women
  • Progressive increases in the making of factory-made cigarettes (instead of roll your own)
  • Introduction of television and cigarette advertising

So when the studies came out, the tobacco companies fought back.

It took a lengthy campaign over many years incorporating social trends; government policy including taxation, and stricter marketing regulations to help drive down tobacco consumption. Today, Australians still have free choice to smoke, but it is a much more informed ‘free choice’ which is saving lives.

So again, doctors and researchers are on the frontline of change, asking for society to take heed of their public health warnings, but this time around excess sugar consumption and rampant poor nutrition. Because indeed, obesity increases the risk of a whole host of diseases, such as cancer, diabetes, heart disease, hypertension and more.

As a society, we have the same obligation to provide an informed free choice around our food products, and perhaps a sugar tax is a great way to discourage excess soft drink consumption and ensure that water is the preferred drink in Australian households. If this means we can save lives, then shouldn’t that be a priority for government and health professionals? We think so.

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