Despite what the ABC says, sugar taxes do not improve general health. By Fred Pawle.
When we published a report recently that found taxes on soft drinks, designed to reduce obesity and diabetes, targeted the wrong products and would not work anyway, the response from one supporter of government paternalism was swift and unequivocal.
ABC chief economics correspondent Emma Alberici published a story and spoke on radio falsely discrediting one of our sources and conflating opposition to the tax with lobbyists who, she said, perniciously influenced policy regarding tobacco, climate change, fishing, industrial relations and now sugar.
“Powerful vested interests have muddied the waters and convinced politicians to go against the prevailing evidence,” Alberici said on the ABC’s website. Her “prevailing evidence” included the unsubstantiated claim that there were “mountains of evidence pointing to the public health benefits” of a sugar tax.
Furthermore, Queensland Nationals MP Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce was, Alberici noted, acting for some of his constituents. This form of democratic representation brought out the “cynic” in her.
“The cynic might say, being a National Party leader… Barnaby Joyce has ruled it (a sugar tax) out of hand as well,” she said. “I’m sure it has nothing to do with the fact that we have significant sugar cane farmers in Queensland.”
The MRC requested a right of reply on ABC radio, but was refused. We would be delighted to hear, therefore, Alberici’s response to an authoritative new report from New Zealand that categorically states: “No study based on actual experience with sugar taxes has identified an impact on health outcomes”.
Two aspects of this report, published last week by independent consultant the NZ Institute of Economic Research, should give Alberici pause for thought: it is based on a review of 47 academic studies from 2013-17, and it was commissioned by the New Zealand Government.
If the NZ Government is under pressure from lobbyists, it’s not the sugar industry. NZ is not even in the top 78 sugar producers in the world, according to figures from the US Department of Agriculture compiled by Index Mundi.
Having scoured the 47 reports, NZIER found that there was no proven link between a tax on soft drinks and improvements in public health. The reports reviewed covered every aspect of sugar taxes: systematic reviews, price elasticity, cost effectiveness, observational effects, hypothetical effects and one case study.
The review concludes that, having looked at all the analysis from across dozens of existing attempts to alter consumption of sugary soft drinks, a sugar tax is an unnecessary burden on consumers, often hits the poor hardest and has no proven health benefits.
“If taxes did not have economic costs, through deadweight losses and implementation costs, then even a slight causal link between a tax and an improvement in health outcomes might be justified,” NZIER says. “That, however, is not the case. We have yet to see any clear evidence that imposing a sugar tax would meet a comprehensive cost-benefit test.”
In her statements last month, Alberici said research by Sydney University Professor Jennie Brand-Miller, one of the researchers referred to in the MRC’s report, had been “repeatedly discredited as false and msileading” and Brand-Miller’s “figures don’t stack up”.
Brand-Miller’s research on this topic had been published in the prestigious American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, then republished with updated data after being scrutinised by an academic review. Her conclusion that sugar consumption in Australia had decreased in recent decades was subsequently corroborated by a report from the Australian Bureau of Statistics.