Beverages industry praises itself for turning politicians away from sugar tax

A can of sugar being poured out. Diet. Can. Soda. Soft drink. obesity. fat. Photo from Shutterstock.
A can of sugar being poured out. Diet. Can. Soda. Soft drink. obesity. fat. Photo from Shutterstock.
Geoff Park, CEO of the Australian Beverages Council

Geoff Park, CEO of the Australian Beverages Council

The soft drink industry said its fight against a sugar tax was "consuming vast amounts of resources", but by lobbying politicians and bureaucrats it had managed to keep the policy off the table.

In its annual report, the Australian Beverages Council - representing many large soft drink makers including Coca-Cola and Pepsi - claims it has successfully warded off "any legitimate threat of a discriminatory tax".

The peak body is at loggerheads with a coalition of 34 health, academic and consumer groups who are urging the federal government to slap a 20 per cent levy on sugary drinks in a bid to reverse Australia's obesity crisis.

The beverage council warned that a sugar tax was never far from morphing into a draft bill for debate and, based on the experience of its overseas counterparts, it must "constantly challenge" any such threat before it reaches parliament.

"Politically, we have strengthened our profile with various politicians both in Canberra and in state parliaments," wrote chief executive Geoff Parker.

"Naturally senior bureaucrats are equally as important to engage with and our outreach has extended to many departmental offices."

Both major political parties oppose the tax, with the Turnbull government saying it stands "zero chance", despite research suggesting it could reduce preventable deaths, cut healthcare costs and boost revenue that can be diverted to health services.

Dr Gary Sacks from Deakin University, who researches lobbyists, said he was flabbergasted by how openly the council spoke about their successful lobbying of politicians.

"They usually talk about how they're part of the solution, so to see them openly boasting about lobbying politicians against public health measures is a big surprise," he said. "It's normally behind closed doors."

The report provides a glimpse into the goals, priorities and "high-level lobbying" strategies of the group.

It said an annual board meeting at Parliament House in Canberra had allowed members to engage with key politicians and on reflection, the politicians' expressions of support last time the sugar tax debate flared up "was due in part to the positive outcomes from this meeting".

It also revealed it had "broadened defensive lines" to stop the tax. This was the main idea, it divulged, behind the creation of a sugar roundtable, whose key members include the Australian Food and Grocery Council and the Canegrowers Association.

"Undoubtedly the constant scrutiny and criticism of sugar-sweetened beverages remains the industry's most pressing and serious ongoing risk," wrote committee chair Vered Moses, a nutrition scientist at PepsiCo.

"The industry continues to defend people's right to choose whatever it is they want to consume whilst promoting the concepts of moderation and the importance of a balanced diet."

Dr Sacks said the focus on individual responsibility wasn't working, and the government had to improve the food environment.

"The World Health Organisation says taxes on unhealthy foods need to be part of the solution," he said.

He said the government couldn't ignore the calls of 34 high-profile groups for a tax, especially with countries such as Ireland and Mexico passing similar laws.

In Mexico, it has been reported a tax of about 10 per cent on sugar-sweetened beverages saw a 7.6 per cent drop in purchases of those drinks over two years. This is disputed by the beverage industry.

"You can see in black and white the lobby's having influence over politicians, rather than the 34 health groups with heaps of academic evidence who know what's best for the public," said Dr Sacks.

"We know the sugary drinks tax works, but it's not happening, and this shows us why evidence-based policy is not being implemented."

The Liberals, Nationals, as well as Labor, are also reluctant because they have their eye on marginal seats in NSW and Qld that produce and refine sugar. The Liberals lost Qld's Herbert to Labor last year.

Mr Parker told Fairfax Media nothing in the report should be a surprise, as the council's core function was to speak on behalf of its members.

"The evidence is clear they do nothing to reduce obesity and only serve to hurt consumers and the local manufacturing industry," he said.

"We speak to governments and oppositions, just as those groups who think we should have additional taxes do, and talk about ways our industry can be a part of sensible solutions to serious issues."

Health Minister Greg Hunt's spokesman said he categorically rejected the assertions made.

"The Coalition's policy on this matter has been consistent and unchanged for many years now," he said.

He said the government was tackling the obesity crisis by encouraging Australians to live healthy lives and focusing on driving grocery prices down.

Jane Martin from the Obesity Policy Coalition said the sugar roundtable reminded her of how the tobacco industry reacted when it felt under threat, "building opposition, building a research agenda and personal relationships with key political representatives".

She said she could hear the industry's voice echoing in politicians' statements.

"I think industry are winning at the moment, but the research is continuing to build and 26 jurisdictions have implemented a levy," she said.

"The industry, like the tobacco industry, wants to delay, wants to obfuscate the evidence, and that's why they're doing their own research and push back against evidence-based research," she continued.

"We're trying to improve health, while the industry is trying to preserve profits. We're not in this for the money, we're in this because we care about the public's health."

Sugar and soft drink manufacturers maintain a strong lobbying presence in federal parliament. Industry leader Coca-Cola has four registered external lobbyists in Canberra, all of whom are former government employees.

This story Beverages industry praises itself for turning politicians away from sugar tax first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.