Health experts have overwhelmingly given the soft drink industry's plan to slash sugar by 20 per cent the thumbs down, with key figures labelling it a "scam", "window dressing" and "smoke and mirrors".
The Australian Beverages Council, flanked by federal Health Minister Greg Hunt, announced it would reduce sugar by 20 per cent within seven years, based on 2015 sales data, across all categories of non-alcoholic drinks, including bottled water, in a bid to tackle obesity.
But health experts, who have long called for a sugary drinks tax, a mandatory health star-rating system and restrictions on marketing to children, reacted with disbelief and scepticism.
Professor Rob Moodie, a global health expert at the University of Melbourne, said the pledge didn't amount to much because the industry was on track to reach its target without any extra effort.’
It’s a scam.- Professor Rob Moodie
“We know that sales are dropping so they’d probably reach the [10 per cent reduction by] 2020 target without changing the sugar content at all," he said.
"The sales are dropping at a much slower rate than what is needed to keep our children healthy, so even though obesity levels may have plateaued in children, they have plateaued at Mount Everest, not at Mount Kosciuszko."
Jane Martin of the Obesity Policy Coalition, which is spearheading the Tipping the Scales campaign, urged the government to impose a "raft of measures", including a sugary drinks tax of 20 per cent, if it was serious about curbing soaring obesity rates.
"The industry's announcement is window dressing. It's not about making products 20 per cent less sugary, it’s about sales volume," she said.
"If we had a health levy, it would achieve changes to the food supply, to the amount of sugar in these drinks, plus it would nudge people to healthier choices."
A study involving Ms Martin showed that a 20 per cent tax would would reduce the number of new cases of type two diabetes by 770 a year, heart disease by 240 a year, and stroke by 70 a year.
"Sugary drinks contribute to being overweight and obesity, they don’t make you feel full, they provide no nutritional value, they're not part of a healthy diet," she said.
Associate Professor Gary Sacks, a fellow at Deakin University’s Global Obesity Centre, raised concerns about Mr Hunt's official endorsement of the industry's plan, saying the pair's close relationship was potentially a major concern for public health.
"Previous analysis of Australian Beverages Council documents has shown that they have actively lobbied against a tax on sugary drinks, a measure that has been shown to be effective in several other countries," he said.
This pledge is likely to be just smoke and mirrors ... a further attempt by the industry to stave off a tax on sugary drinks.
A tax on sugary drinks has been implemented in more than 26 countries. It is backed by the Greens in Australia, but opposed by the two major parties.
Professor Bruce Neal from the George Institute for Public Health, said the proposed reductions were not nearly ambitious enough.
"The UK achieved these sorts of reductions within two years of announcing a sugar tax. There is simply no reason we cannot do this in a much shorter timeframe," he said.
"We need a really clear explanation as to why Australians should have to wait for seven years.”
Leanne Wells, CEO of Consumers Health Forum of Australia, said while the industry's pledge was encouraging, it was a modest first step.
"If it is to be a self-regulatory process it leaves open the risk of products continuing to include sugar-rich drinks," she said.
“We would like the Health Minister to initiate a much more holistic approach on diet that would include more effective curbs on promotion of unhealthy food to children and in association with sports."
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