A Tax On Soft Drinks Could Be Coming (But How Fattening Are They Really?)

A Tax On Soft Drinks Could Be Coming (But How Fattening Are They Really?)

Australia’s leading health organisations are urging the government to introduce a federal tax on sugary soft drinks in a bid to curb obesity rates. Citing a recent US study, the campaign claims that a daily can of soft drink can lead to a weight gain of 6.75kg per year. But is their data actually accurate?

The Cancer Council of Australia, Diabetes Australia and the National Heart Foundation have joined forces to tackle the nation’s addiction to soft drink — and they’re not above using shock-tactics to get their point across. In the above TV ad, a man gleefully slurps down a glass of liquefied fat, which supposedly indicates what you’re really ingesting when you have a soft drink. Hmm.

“Soft drinks seem innocuous and consumed occasionally they’re fine, but soft drink companies have made it so they’re seen as part of an everyday diet – there’s an entire aisle dedicated to them in the supermarket, most venues and workplaces have vending machines packed with them, they’re often cheaper than bottled water and are advertised relentlessly to teenagers,” Craig Sinclair, Chair of the Public Health Committee at Cancer Council Australia said in a campaign announcement.

“But sugary drinks shouldn’t be part of a daily diet — many people would be surprised to know that a regular 600ml soft drink contains about 16 packs of sugar and that’s a lot of empty kilojoules. Yet they’re being consumed at levels that can lead to serious health issues for the population – it’s time to stop sugar-coating the facts.”

Over the past twelve months, Australian consumers purchased an estimated 447 million litres of cola-flavoured soft drinks — which is enough for nearly 4 million Pepsi baths. When combined with all other soft drink flavours, the total fizzes out to a massive 1.28 billion litres.

A significant proportion of this amount is being consumed by kids, with nearly half of all children aged between two and 16 drinking sugar-sweetened beverages on a daily basis. The campaign is thus urging Federal Government to implement restrictions that will reduce children’s exposure to marketing of sugary drinks.

“State governments too can help to address the problem by limiting the sale of sugary drinks in all schools and encouraging places frequented by children and young adults such as sporting grounds to reduce the availability of these drinks,” said Kellie-Ann Jolly, acting CEO of the Heart Foundation (Victoria).

In addition to reducing availability in the playground, the campaign is also urging the government to introduce a tax on sugar-sweetened soft drinks in a bid to reduce consumer intake. Presumably, a taxation would lead to cheaper diet soft drinks, although we wouldn’t put it past manufacturers to hike up the price of their entire range to avoid “consumer confusion” or somesuch bollocks. Tch, eh?

Here are the key aims of the ‘Rethink Sugary Drinks’ campaign in full:

  1. A social marketing campaign, supported by Australian governments, to highlight the health impacts of sugar-sweetened beverages consumption and encourage people to reduce their consumption levels. An investigation by the Federal Department of Treasury and Finance into tax options to increase the price of sugar-sweetened beverages or sugar-sweetened soft drinks, with the aim of changing purchasing habits and achieving healthier diets.
  2. Comprehensive restrictions by Australian governments to reduce children’s exposure to marketing of sugar-sweetened beverages, including through schools and children’s sports, events and activities.
  3. Comprehensive restrictions by state governments on the sale of sugar-sweetened beverages in all schools (primary and secondary), and encouraging restriction at places frequented by children, such as activity centres and at children’s sports and events (with adequate resources to ensure effective implementation, monitoring and evaluation).
  4. An investigation by state and local governments into the steps that may be taken to reduce the availability of sugar-sweetened beverages in workplaces, government institutions, health care settings and other public places.

One of the chief justifications for the campaign is a recent study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association which found that consuming one can of soft drink per day could lead to a 6.75 kg weight gain in one year.

We think it’s worth pointing out that the majority of soft drinks manufactured in the US are sweetened with high fructose corn syrup rather than cane sugar. This means that any study conducted in the US is largely irrelevant to Australia. Indeed, a 2010 study from Princeton University found that rats that ingested high fructose corn syrup gained significantly more weight than rats that ate an equal calorie amount of table sugar.

With that said, there’s no denying that soft drinks are a key contributor to obesity in Australia which makes this campaign a worthy one (disingenuous comparisons to the US aside). You can learn more about the particulars of the campaign at the official Rethink Sugary Drinks website. We’ll also have a diet soft drink taste-test roundup, coming soon.

See also: How Much Does A Pepsi Bath Cost? [Video] | Ask LH: Is Coffee Worse For You Than Coke? | How Many Soft Drinks Do You Drink Per Day?


          • People under the influence of alcohol cause huge amounts of damage to public property (and other people) all the time i.e. they still have an effect on those around you. Drinking soft drinks only hurts you, no-one else, so you should have the right to make your own decisions.

          • Obese people often require more hospital visits due to increased chance of heart disease and diabetes, thus reducing the number of available beds in hospitals. Tell me this doesn’t hurt other people.

          • what if i told you not all obese people are obese from drinking sugary drinks? why should healthy people be stuck paying a fat peoples tax just because they want to enjoy a soft drink

          • See the arguments in the comments here and here. They discuss arguments for the tax.
            I don’t think the tax is a good idea but that is just because the evidence suggests it is ineffective for reducing calorie intake.

          • I pay the tobacco excise even though my cigar consumption (a few times a year but this holds for less than one per day according to the literature) carries no statistically significant risk increase for any disease. That’s the problem with these broad tax arrangements to target negative externalities. Those that don’t cause the externality also pay.

            That said, the tobacco excise actually significantly more than covers the negative health externality of tobacco consumption so it’s often not really about externalities anyway.

            My problem with this (besides my general aversion to taxes) is that I’ve seen case studies where they don’t work, and I also don’t like these piecemeal approaches. Why just the sugar in a soft drink?

            That said I’m quite pro people switching to the diet versions. I think it’s one of the easiest ways to improve the health of a lot of people’s modern diets.

      • I agree, I gym and eat well everyday, on the off chance that I do have a drink I am hit with tax, why should those who decide to gouge themselves on junk food have it any different than those who choose to drink.

        Fast food needs to be taxed next.

        • You could argue that the alcohol excise should be reduced rather than arguing that because you feel unfairly taxed other people should also be unfairly taxed.

          Assuming unfair taxes.

      • Sorry that was at @phalacee
        Why not fast food, cake, all desserts, sugar, donuts, Slurpees etc etc.. I think that people should have a choice, me personally the only soft drink that I have is with a bourbon.
        Why does every thing have to be taxed if it is bad for you? I can barely scrape through a month as it is, I don’t think that we need to add more tax to any form of food.
        People know that soft drink is not good for you, its a decision they will make regardless of the tax, so why put it on?
        And we tax cigarettes based on the negative health effects as you say but they really just do it to make money. If they wanted they could drop the tax and ban nicotine, then with out the addiction more people would quit smoking and thus remove the strain on the government health, but more importantly new people who make the dumb decision at some point in there life and start smoking would be able to stop at any time.
        I’m not even going to bother with alcohol..

        • Next we’ll have people suggesting we need to tax the individual ingredients these products are made from!

          It’s rather pointless in my opinion. The stuff is already over priced as it is, it’s not going to stop those who are addicted to the crap whose life it may be impacting.

        • There are very good reasons to tax things that are unhealthy. Lets just look at two.
          First, if something is unhealthy then consumption of that product – at least in excess – carries an increased risk of adverse health effects. Such effects carry a cost in terms of health services provision, which is borne by the government, and thus by taxpayers. By taxing the unhealthy products more of that tax is taken directly from consumers of the product. However, this is likely to be a trivial amount next to the cost of healthcare.
          Second, the higher price of the product can act as a disincentive to use the product – particularly if there is a cheaper alternative product. This, of course, is only helpful if the alternative is healthier. In the case of smoking, the alternatives (patches or gum) are much healthier. What evidence there is on soft drink taxes is that when consumption shifts, it shifts to fruit juices or milk (possibly flavoured), which from the perspective of calorie intake is no better than soft drink. (It may be more nutritional, but doesn’t represent a reduction in obesity)

    • That is what the food industry lobby says, all while ensuring traffic light food labelling legislation (which is supported by good evidence) gets dropped by the federal government. (see here and here

    • People who make the freedom to choose argument seem to all too often forget medicare and such :/

      I believe people should have the right to choose their behaviour as long as it doesn’t negatively affect others. However as soon as you bring medicare into the equation it *does* negatively effect others. If you choose to do something that leads to you getting cancer or type 2 diabetes with large complications that can cost the system enormous amounts of money. Why shouldn’t it be taxed to try and offset those costs somehow for the people unfortunate enough to get those illnesses without choosing to expose themselves too a high risk factor?

      This being said I don’t live a healthy lifestyle and I do have heightened risk for certain illnesses due to it. But if the government chooses to raise taxes on something I partake in to level the field for people who are trying to stay healthy that seems fair to me. Medicare is a wonderful service that we too often take for granted/abuse or simply forget about, I know numerous people who wouldn’t be alive today (probably myself included) if it didn’t exist.

  • I have had 1 or 2 bottles of soft drink daily for 4 years, while my teeth might not be the best, I haven’t changed weight at all. So if a can of soft drink makes you gain 6.75kg a year, then I should have gained over 100 kg.

  • Not sure if taxation is the right method, but severely limiting access in schools and advertisements targeting children and teenagers would be a good step.

    As pointed out above higher priced sugary soft drinks will likely lead to an artificial increase in ‘sugar-free’ soft drink prices at the manufacturers behest and/or a shift to juice and flavoured milk which is no better from a calorific standpoint.

    Anecdotally: Soft drink definitely contributes to weight gain – I’m reasonably fit and always have been, but having cut soft drink out of my diet completely about 6 months ago, I’ve actually lost weight.

  • Oh I like this, I’ve had to go and think.

    Firstly, I didn’t like this idea, still don’t. Good reason for that though, and I will get to that.

    I was trying to think, what would I say, why is this a bad idea, really? Apart from a possible loss of jobs, there’s not too big of a downside. So, that’s when it hit me, even though I don’t drink every day, at least not anymore, I still do have a can or a bottle usually when I go to work, which is most days, admittedly.

    How dare they go and put a tax on something that I enjoy, simply because it’s not healthy, I’m aware of that fact! I’ve only got one li…oh… ohhhhh I sound like someone with an addiction.

    Am I addicted? Could I live without coke and similar drinks in my life?

    I drink a lot less soft drink than I used to, but realistically, even now, still too much. So, that may be, the main reason I dislike the idea of a tax on soft drinks, I can’t say it’s a bad idea, or that it’s stupid, I just want my unhealthy drinks because they’re enjoyable, and that’s not a valid argument.

    I’m sure someone will tell me that something I’ve said is wrong, but to anyone who can be bothered reading this, think about soft drinks in your life, how often you have them, and can you imagine not having them for a week, or a month? I may try a week, just to see how easy it is, or isn’t.

    Annoying, yet useful article… and now I’m thirsty.

  • How about just have a fat tax instead? Tax those who are overweight

    why can’t an average person enjoy a can of softdrink without getting tax? Just because some ppl cannot exert some self control?

    • should be the other way around… fat people are just going to absorb the tax into their life…. on the other hand if you offer tax discounts for people actively trying to be fit, people will go damn right! i want that tax benefit, bring on the physical activity

    • That’s all well and good until you realise that there is literature exploring the concept of the healthy overweight, aka overweight people who complete a certain amount of exercise having good health markers.

      So just as we have the examples of soft drink drinkers who are healthy and athletic etc and would be unjusty caught up in the attempt to internalise the externality, we too have overweight people in the same situation.

      It’s all very complex and frustrating. Which is why I generally take the position of being skeptical of the process of internalising externalities, though I accept their existence.

    • @neopopulas

      There has been a massive reduction over cigarette smoking since tax was included. There have been continuous reductions in every tax increase. There have been reductions when plain packaging was introduced.

      • I think a lot of that reduction of smoking would be around education and changing social values, though it would be very hard to say how much came from where.

        • There is a fair bit of research on price elasticity with cigarettes. As price increases, more people quit. However, this is less in lower socioeconomic groups, and particularly among those with schizophrenia. (There is some evidence smoking may reduce symptoms)

    • That’s OK, no need for it to be a huge tax. Say, 2c/can. That should be enough to fund awareness and education campaigns to counter the marketing from Coke et al.

      I see ads for alcohol advertising how much fun you can have, and counter to that there are warnings about drink driving and binge drinking. I think it’s worth a modest tax to run informative campaigns as to the poisonous nature of HFCS, for example, to counter the fun and inventive marketing.

  • Oh deary me, tax the world because people enjoy it and it kills them. Nanny should put cotton wool on the ground and walls.

    You tax soft drink, it won’t stop anyone unless the tax is high enough. You tax it enough, why not tax other sugary things and then plain sugar, then caffeine.

    If Australia’s leading health organisations are pushing for this, I’d like to think think they know what they’re doing. I agree that the high sugar soft drinks shouldn’t be in schools. But a tax is ridiculous.

  • I think having the smaller size cans and bottles have been doing the trick, as well as Fast food Mostly not having That large Soda cups compared to America. We don’t need to tax soft drink, we just need to keep our consumption in smaller amounts, rather than drinking a litre or two every time we get a coke.

    • I’d love it if we had the US size. If my more sugary inclined compatriots have to drop dead around me as I enjoy my 1L Coke Zero, I’m quite comfortable with that.

      • So I guess we should legalize Heroin so all the idiots who would use it at a moments notice while uninformed will all drop dead too huh? leaving us superior smart people drinking Coke Zero (which really isn’t better for you, not talking sugar wise) alive.
        You sounded like a bit of a douche man, not gunna lie.

    • Ripped straight from Wikipedia:
      The effectiveness of diet soda as a weight loss tool has also been called into question.
      Changing the food energy intake from one food will not necessarily change a person’s overall food energy intake or cause a person to lose weight. One study[7] at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio, reported by Sharon Fowler at the ADA annual meeting, actually suggested the opposite, where consumption of diet soda correlated with weight gain. While Fowler did suggest that the undelivered expected calories from diet soda may stimulate the appetite, the correlation does not prove that consumption of diet soda caused the weight gain. The ADA has yet to issue an updated policy concerning diet soda.
      In an independent study by researchers with the Framingham Heart Study in Massachusetts, soda consumption correlated with increased incidence of metabolic syndrome. Of the 9,000 males and females studied, soda drinkers were at 48% higher risk for metabolic syndrome, which involves weight gain and elevated blood sugar. No significant difference in these findings was observed between sugary sodas and diet drinks. The researchers noted that diet soda drinkers were less likely to consume healthy foods, and that drinking diet soda flavored with artificial sweeteners more than likely increases cravings for sugar-flavored sweets.[8]

  • I think educating people would work better than implementing a new tax. Whack on a new tax and people will complain about the price rise, but they’ll still keep buying it. Educate people so that they know what’s what and they’ll be able to make an informed decision. Having said that though, I don’t think soft drink is solely to blame for obesity levels in Australia. It’s a whole bunch of things ranging from lack of exercise (for whatever reason, such as not having time), to too much junk food (which doesn’t just mean takeaway. Just look at all the crap at the supermarket), to whatever other variables there may be in any given person’s life.

  • Education is the key here.
    When I left school the main things I knew about nutrition were things I learned from my parents.
    Perhaps that is a good place to start.

    We certainly do not need a tax on sugary drinks.

  • Schools should start a program where we can all vote on what kind of things we think kids should be taught about, Because all I remember health class being about was Vegetables and fruits are good for you, and how babies are made.

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