Another year has started with the Australian Medical Association rolling out a campaign for a tax on the sugar content of soft drinks. It is slick and colourful but it misses its mark and risks major damage to regional economies.
Before I go any further, remember that CANEGROWERS represents sugarcane growers. We do not make soft drink, nor do we promote it. But we do look after the reputation and try to safeguard the livelihoods of our members and for this reason, we oppose the AMA’s call and will try to expose it for what it is.
It is a simplistic, scapegoating of our industry and our product. Modern health problems linked to obesity are dire and not in debate here. Overcoming them at a personal level is challenging and addressing them at a national population level is complex.
Solutions to this complex web of issues is where the funding, energy and ideas must be directed – to bold plans and not social media campaigns against a single ingredient in a single product line, promoting a tax as some sort of silver-bullet solution to chronic disease.
As the Chairman of CANEGROWERS, I have the privilege to talk to cane growers’ organisations around the world, including in countries like South Africa where a sugar tax is in place. The tax was introduced in 2018 and the grower organisation SA Canegrowers says so far there is little to no evidence that it has achieved its goal of reducing obesity.
In fact, a South African National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey found that more than half of the population gained weight in 2021. A study commissioned by the National Economic Development and Labour Council in South Africa showed that in the first year of the sugar tax it caused 16,621 jobs losses and the equivalent of a $108 million decline in the industry’s contribution to the country’s Gross Domestic Product.
In light of this, we have to reject outright the AMA’s claim that its proposed $0.40 per 100 grams of sugar tax on soft drinks in Australia will have a minimal impact on the industry because only 0.64% of sugar production would be affected.
A loss of reputation for the industry and its product through a scapegoating tax has the potential to be devastating to jobs and livelihoods on farms, at sugar mills and in the thousands of businesses which supply and support them.
Maybe people do need to reduce the amount of sugary drinks they consume. I’m sure if that’s the case, their doctor will suggest that as one part of a wider strategy to improve their health.
Putting us and our reputation, our industry and thousands of jobs at risk is not, by the South African experience, the answer.