For several years the Public Health Association of Australia (PHAA) and other peak health bodies have led the call for the introduction of a health levy on sugar sweetened beverages, targeting the sale of soft drinks to improve the health of our nation. The Rethink Sugary Drink campaign has been an ongoing initiative to raise awareness of the serious health harms of consuming sugary drinks.
The call for a sugar tax has the support of community leaders like the 2020 Australian of the Year, Dr James Muecke. He believes a 20 per cent tax on sugary drinks would help combat diabetes, and raise millions of dollars to fund health awareness initiatives and other preventive health programs.
The PHAA welcomes the growing momentum for a sugar tax, including this week from the Australian Medical Association (AMA) as it released a new report on the issue.
AMA President, Dr Omar Khorshid, told the National Press Club that the introduction of a sugar tax would help counter the ‘skyrocketing’ number of Australians suffering diabetes, obesity and cardiovascular disease.
The PHAA believes a health levy on sugar sweetened beverages would be a huge step in the right direction, but action is also needed to control the advertising and marketing of sugar-sweetened drinks, including the growing number of new varieties of energy drinks.
The World Health Organization agrees on both fronts, saying governments should lead the way, just as they have in taxing tobacco to help reduce smoking. The WHO has declared that restricting the marketing of unhealthy food and drink is a global priority for obesity prevention.
Research published recently in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health (ANZJPH) analyses levels of expenditure on sugary drink advertising in Australia between 2016 and 2018, which, not surprisingly, is significantly higher compared to advertising on alternative cold, non-alcoholic drinks.
The ANZJPH report says in 2018, rates of overweight and obesity in Australia reached 67% in adults and 25% in children and adolescents, increasing the risk of Type 2 diabetes, heart disease and 13 types of cancer.
So, it’s of significant concern that sugar-sweetened drinks are commonly consumed in excess, and are among the most heavily-marketed food or beverage products in Australia. Despite this, regulations on food and drink marketing in Australia are still limited in scope and impact.
For example, the Children’s Television Standards prohibit certain advertising techniques and misleading nutrition claims during designated children’s free-to-air television programming. However, the standards don’t restrict overall exposure, and don’t apply to prime-time programming when children and families commonly gather around the telly.
While TV has long been the dominant advertising medium for unhealthy food and drink products, the ANZJPH review finds overall expenditure on television has been in decline over the past decade, replaced by out-of-home advertising (for example billboards, street furniture and shopping centre advertisements) and digital advertising which shows the largest growth of all media spending in recent years.
Given the concerning rates of overweight and obesity among Australians of all ages, this latest research examines unhealthy product marketing across a range of media and platforms used and frequented by children, adolescents and adults.
Spread over three years (2016-2018) the research captures expenditure on the advertising of sugary drinks across all Australian media channels (television, newspapers, magazines, radio, out of home, cinema and digital).
For context, the research made comparisons with expenditure on alternative cold beverages – artificially sweetened drinks, plain water and plain milk.
Estimates of monthly advertising expenditure for all non-alcoholic drinks were obtained from Nielsen Media Ad Intel for 2016, 2017 and 2018.
The research findings showed conclusively that spending on sugary drinks advertising alone comfortably exceeded the combined spend on all other non-alcoholic drinks.
From 2016-2018, $129.5 million was spent on sugary drink advertising, compared to $23.26 million on artificially sweetened drinks, $14.27 million on plain water, and $31.3 million on plain milk.
Sugary drink advertising made up 65% of the average monthly expenditure for non-alcoholic cold drinks across the monitoring period. On average, monthly expenditure on sugary drink advertising was 5.6 times higher than artificially sweetened drinks, 9.1 times higher than plain water and 4.1 times higher than plain milk.
The research revealed that television was the place where most sugary drinks were advertised (45%), followed by out-of-home (35%) and cinema (11%).
In general, sugary drink advertising peaked in the warmer months, between February and April and October and December. The lowest spend on advertising was in the cooler months from April to August.
For all media combined, the highest proportion of advertising expenditure for sugary drinks was for sugar-sweetened soft drinks (26% of total spend), followed by flavoured milks (24%), and energy drinks (21%). Sports drinks accounted for an average of 12% of expenditure, while fruit juices had only 2% of the total spend.
The researchers suggest one of the challenges for regulators will be to devise objective, evidence-based criteria for classifying products as ‘healthy’ and ‘unhealthy’ and should consider the risks posed by artificially sweetened drinks as well as sugary drinks.
The findings also have implications for public health campaigns to discourage sugary drink consumption or to counter industry advertising when it’s most prevalent in the warmer months.
The study concludes that as public health campaigns can’t match the levels of investment in advertising by industry, ultimately, further restrictions on unhealthy products are needed. It also warns of the challenges of regulating the growing expenditure via digital channels – including social media – as advertisers gradually move away from traditional areas such as television.
The PHAA would welcome a two-pronged approach by governments to combat the health problems created by excessive consumption of sugary drinks. Firstly, the introduction of a health levy on sugary drinks to reduce sales and provide a new revenue source for preventive health promotion. Secondly, stronger regulation on the marketing of sugary drinks, in particular to reduce the harm to Australia’s most vulnerable younger populations.
View the PHAA’s Policy Position Statement: Health Levy on Sugar Sweetened Beverages
The study ‘Sugary drink advertising expenditure across Australian media channels 2016-2018’ was funded by the Cancer Council Victoria and was co-authored by Ashleigh Haynes, Megan Bayly, Helen Dixon, Alison McAleese, Jane Martin, Yan Jun Michelle Chen and Melanie Wakefield.