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Sugar tax might be the sweetener to change behavior

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The sugar tax concept has divided opinion in Australia, and both major political parties have rejected the idea of introducing the tax.

However, sales of soft drinks within a Melbourne hospital dropped by more than a quarter during an Australian-first trial of a sugar tax, monitored by researchers at Deakin University’s Global Obesity Centre.

The trial, carried out at a convenience store in The Alfred over 17 weeks, increased the cost of sugary drinks by 20 per cent.

The results, recently published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, showed sales of the sugary drinks dropped by 27.6 per cent by the final week of the trial, while sales of water increased by almost the same amount.

The team behind the research believe there had, up until their trial, been limited real-world evidence of how an increase to the price of sugar sweetened beverages would change purchasing behaviour in Australia.

Lead researcher Miranda Blake, Associate Research Fellow at the Global Obesity Centre in Deakin’s School of Health and Social Development, said that the trial shows that an increase to the cost of sugary drinks can have a significant impact on lowering consumption.

“Sugary drinks are considered a good target for price manipulation because of their association with increased risk of health issues like obesity and dental decay, their minimal nutritional benefits and the apparent responsiveness of purchases to price changes,” Ms Blake said.

“Voluntary changes by retailers, which make healthy choices relatively more attractive and affordable, may be particularly appealing to retail outlets in community health promotion settings like hospitals, healthcare centres and sports and recreation facilities.”

Project supervisor Dr Kathryn Backholer, a Senior Research Fellow at the Deakin centre, said researchers interviewed customers and staff to get their perspective on the price increase, as part of the trial.

“About a third of the customers surveyed said the price difference had changed their purchasing decision, or would have changed it. Nearly two thirds of those surveyed said they agreed with intervention,” Dr Backholer said.

The World Health Organization (WHO) last year said that a tax of 20 per cent or more results in the drop of soft drink sales, which they say would also cut healthcare costs if it succeeded in improving health outcomes.

The Grattan Institute has suggested a tax of 40 cents per 100 grams of sugar, and calculated that obesity costs Australians $5.3 billion a year. The savings they have projected would mean an extra $500 million for the Budget.

And a study led by researchers from the Australian National University, performed in Thailand, suggested that thousands of cases of type 2 diabetes could be prevented every year by cutting out sugary drinks.

The AMA believes a sugar tax sends a message to parents of children and other consumers that there is a problem with these drinks. While acknowledging a sugar tax is not a magic bullet, it is time start sending the message that highly sugared carbonated drinks are a part of the problem with a growing obesity epidemic.