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Panel: Damon Gameau, director of 'That Sugar Film', Geoff Parker from the Food and Beverages Council and Dr Mike Rayner from Oxford University -

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EMMA ALBERICI, PRESENTER: This week, the World Health Organisation issued a call for global action to halt the rise in diabetes.

The number of people worldwide living with diabetes has almost quadrupled since 1980.

The WHO lists overweight and obesity as a leading cause and suggests countries implement policies that, among other things, discourage the consumption of sugary soft drinks. A high intake of sugar sweetened beverages it says increases the likelihood of being overweight or obese particularly among children.

Just last month, Britain answered the call with the Conservative Chancellor George Osborne introducing a new tax to improve the nation's health.

GEORGE OSBORNE, CHANCELLOR OF THE EXCHEQUER: One of the biggest contributors to childhood obesity is sugary drinks. So today, I can announce that we will introduce a new sugar levy on the soft drinks industry.

EMMA ALBERICI: So what to do about Australia's rising obesity epidemic? 75 per of men, 56 per cent of women and 25 per cent of children are now considered overweight or obese.

But Rural Health Minister Fiona Nash doesn't see a role for a sugar tax in bringing those figures down.

FIONA NASH, RURAL HEALTH MINISTER: But in dealing with obesity, this Government's view is that we empower people with the information to make healthy food choices and we respect that they have a responsibility to make those healthy food choices.

EMMA ALBERICI: Earlier this week Lateline spoke to one of Britain's leading cardiologists who led the push for a sugar tax in the UK.

ASEEM MALHOTRA, DR., CARDIOLOGIST: I think the role of government and the duty of the government and politicians is to protect, in this case, the public and children from the excesses and manipulations of the food industry.

EMMA ALBERICI: Doctor Malhotra was also unequivocal about the role sugar plays in obesity, type two diabetes and heart disease.

ASEEM MALHOTRA: There is absolutely no role whatsoever of sugar in a balanced diet. The optimal level of sugar consumption of added sugar, refined sugar, zero. There is no biological requirement. It doesn't do you any good.

So does Australia need a sugar tax?

That's the subject of this week's late debate. A short time go, I was joined from by Damon Gameau. He's the star and director of That Sugar Film, a documentary examining the effects of eating foods with high amounts of added sugars. From Brisbane was Geoff Parker from the Australian Beverages Council. And our third guest was Dr. Mike Rayner, Professor of Population Health at Oxford University.

Gentlemen, welcome to Lateline.



EMMA ALBERICI: Let's start with the obvious question -


EMMA ALBERICI: ... that is should Australia be introducing a sugar tax, Damon Gameau?

DAMON GAMEAU: There was a survey done last year by the Obesity Policy Coalition and they found that 85 per cent of Australians would support a sugar tax as long as that money went to childhood obesity prevention and I am kind of that argument. I think if we are going to raise that kind of money, let's actually use it very productively. Let's put it to you know, subsidise fresh fruit and vegetables in lower socioeconomic areas or change our food in hospitals or even look after our children better than we do. But I think it's more multifaceted than just a tax. I think there needs to be a mass education and awareness campaign and clearer labelling on our foods.

EMMA ALBERICI: Geoff Parker, do you agree?

GEOFF PARKER: Agree that we need more education. We don't believe that there should be a sugar tax here in Australia. People - people want education, not taxation. And a 2014 IPSOS national poll clearly told us that people are after education. They're after education around healthy diets, they are after education around the role of physical activity and you know, other markets where taxation has been brought in clearly does not have any discernible impact on obesity. So Australia doesn't need a sugar tax but we need - we need a more informed and nuanced debate around this concept of the whole diet.

EMMA ALBERICI: Okay so it's probably not a surprise that you would oppose a sugar tax given it would reduce the attractiveness of the products that you're promoting. We'll come back to some of the specific issues that you raise but I'll bring in Professor Rayner at this point.

The broader question, of course, raised in a debate about whether we need a tax is what would be the health impact. And I know you've done some modelling around this. Tell us what you found.

MIKE RAYNER: Well yeah I think it would be great if Australia introduced a sugary drinks tax partly because the problem is so bad there and also because you've got great data so we could work out if you did introduce a tax whether the tax really worked or not. But at the moment we got really good evidence that a sugary tax would work from a range of different types of studies.

Firstly we got studies done in canteens and virtual supermarkets showing that if you raise the price of sugar drinks, consumption will fall. We got good economic data which shows that as you raise the price of sugary drinks, their consumption will fall. We've got modelling studies, some of which we've done in the UK which predict what would happen. So in the UK we know that if we had a 20 per cent tax on sugar drinks, we'd save about 200,000 cases of obesity and overweight a year. And we now have data from around the world, particularly from Mexico, which shows shows that if you introduce such a tax, then consumption does indeed for. So I think all the evidence to - what we've got at the moment shows that sugary drinks tax in Australia would be a good thing.

EMMA ALBERICI: But then Denmark introduced a sugar tax and abandoned it 15 months later, given in their opinion it hadn't worked and it had been more after an administrative nightmare than it was worth.

MIKE RAYNER: Well Denmark didn't actually introduce a sugar tax, they introduced a travel on saturated fat. And yes there were administrative problems with the tax and yes they did repeal it. Some recent research that we're about to publish showed - shows however that it did affect the consumption of saturated fat in Denmark and indeed had a small health benefit. So It did actually work. It was just dropped for political and administrative reasons.

EMMA ALBERICI: Now, Damon Gameau, we have a clip from your movie that shows just how much sugar is hidden in processed foods and drink we consume. Let's take a look.

FOOTAGE FROM THAT SUGAR FILM (2015): Sugar has become so prevalent in today's society. But if you removed all the items containing it from a standard supermarket shelves, just 20 per cent of items would remain.

EMMA ALBERICI: So the film follows your experience of consuming 40 teaspoons of sugar a day and the strict condition being that you couldn't eat ice cream or soft drinks or confectionary lollies and chocolate.

Why did you put that caveat on it?

DAMON GAMEAU: Everyone uses that they're sort of seen as a discretionary food. So when we have those foods, we know they're a treat. They're very obvious that you're getting a high amount of sugar in those foods. But the point of the film is to show people that where they're not aware of how much sugar they're having throughout the day so I have a breakfast which is a low fat yoghurt and a Just Right and a glass of apple juice. Now there's 20 teaspoons just to start the day.

So if the World Health Organisation is recommending us to have somewhere around six to nine teaspoons for optimal health, you're almost two or three times over that limit by the time you finish breakfast. So that's the point of the film, just to raise that level of awareness so that people can still have a treat if they want to but at least they understand how much sugar they're actually consuming throughout the day.

EMMA ALBERICI: Let's take another look at exactly the kinds of things you were eating and how you were trying to get the viewer to understand what that translated to in terms of actual sugar.

DAMON GAMEAU, THAT SUGAR FILM (2015): I have this delicious piece of chicken here. Now I could add half a packet of this teriyaki chicken sauce or alternatively - now to wash it down, I could have one of these or -

EMMA ALBERICI: So Damon, the experience of eating more added sugar n your diet, was that more expensive in terms of your overall supermarket bill.

DAMON GAMEAU: No, that was probably one of the biggest surprises of the film is that before I did the experiment I was eating quite a - I was eating more fat than I would normally. So I was eating a lot of less refined carbohydrates like the breads and pastas and cereals, these type of things but eating more healthy fats like avocado and nuts and eggs and what not and because I was eating those healthier fats, they're more satiating.

So I was actually not eating as much as I was on the sugary diet. I wasn't snacking all the time and needing to top up. I was actually feeling fuller for longer and that's the feedback we get from people who have seen the film and started to lower their sugar and refined carbohydrates from their diet, is that they're not eating as much so as a by-product of that is you're not buying as many things at the supermarket and snacking. So you know, that was an added bonus that we certainly didn't expect to come out of the film.

EMMA ALBERICI: But overall, your supermarket bill was lower.

DAMON GAMEAU: That's right. I would say it was probable. It was very similar but now I've been a bit smarter about the shopping and I've learned to shop seasonally and be a bit smarter so I've definitely brought it down.

EMMA ALBERICI: So wouldn't that suggest, Geoff Parker, that if you put up the price of unhealthy foods, that in fact people would make different choices?

GEOFF PARKER: It's far more complicated than that. And I guess I'd challenged what Mike's proposition was earlier on at the opening address was around the problem is so bad here in Australia from a soft drink consumption. In actual fact, the average Australian gets less than two per cent of their kilojoules from the soft drinks and that's been declining, and it's been declining over - over - over the last decade.

Sugar consumption from soft drink has decreased by 26 per cent per person over the last 15 years and those trend lines continued to go down. What's also encouraging is that as a nation, we are drinking more water. But to suggest that, you know, the problem is so bad here in Australia, we certainly refute that and it's not our data that - that - that's pointing to the problem not being so bad, it's -it's the Australian bureau of stats data. It's a secondary analysis that the CSIRO have done on the Australian health survey and these reputable agencies and government data clearly shows that that consumption of soft drinks is on the way down and to - to simply look at that - that two per cent of the average person's diet whilst ignoring the 98 per cent is misguided and - and isn't going to help anyone, let alone a nation with a collective expanding waistline.

DAMON GAMEAU: But that two per cent when you saying the soft drinks have declined but that doesn't include sports drinks and flavoured milk and fruit juices which I know are on the increase in Australia which are also sugary drinks, is that correct?

GEOFF PARKER: Yeah look, certainly, there are some categories like sports drinks which are increasing but they're coming off a really, really low base. You'd know, Damon, here in Australia, you just have to walk down any supermarket or walk into any convenience store or petrol station and the proliferation of - of low and no kilojoules varieties is quite stark. And I guess that sort of represents what the industry has been doing and that is responding to - to consumer's needs. And it's something that - that the beverage industry is really good.

EMMA ALBERICI: Professor Rayner, what's your view? Are the health messages already getting through without the need for a tax?

MIKE RAYNER: Well yes of course they are to some degree. We got similar situation in the UK where sugary drinks are declining. But still there is a problem with sugary drinks and it's a problem that which we can easily address. All the alternatives to sugary drinks are healthier. Water, in particular, milk without added sugar is healthier, tea and coffee is healthier. It is a good place to start. Maybe you need to go further into areas such as confectionary and so forth but I would start, if I were you in Australia, with sugary drinks and we need to address them because the problem of obesity is still on the increase.

EMMA ALBERICI: Damon Gameau, do you agree with the statistics as they were outlined by Geoff Parker in your research of which you did quite a significant amount for your movie, did you also find that habits among Australians had improved significantly in recent years?

DAMON GAMEAU: Not as much as I think we'd like. And I think the important point to make here is that there was a study in the European diabetes journal that shows just one can of soft drink a day can increase your chance of type two diabetes by 22 per cent. So even if people are having a small amount in moderation, there is still the fact that these sugary drinks are uniquely deleterious to our bodies and I certainly -

I guess that's the important thing to understands is that there is no biological requirement for these drinks where you can get all the fructous and glucose we need from fruits and vegetables and other sources. Sure to have them as a treat is okay but there's no actual requirement for them in the diet so to say that it's part of a healthy balanced diet is just incorrect. There's nothing healthy about a soft drink.

EMMA ALBERICI: Do you accept that Geoff Parker that the research among scientists around the world is fairly conclusive that there is no real need for sugar in our drinks?

GEOFF PARKER: No, wouldn't support that. You know, the reason why people put on weight and become overweight and obese is because they're consuming more kilojoules than what they're burning throughout the course of the day. And it doesn't matter where those excess kilojoules come from. If you consume - you know, if you over consume soft drink or pies or cakes or any of those other discretionary treat foods, you're going to put on weight. And I guess that this is something and pick up on Mike's point and Damon's point is that If we're focusing on a small and declining portion of the diet then we're really missing the mark.

CSIRO analysis of ABS data showed that the average child here in Australia gets 42 per cent of their daily kilojoules from discretionary or treat foods and for adults, that's 38 per cent. So as - as a nation, we need to be reducing that - that discretionary or treat foods. Interestingly, soft drinks in that discretionary treat food category, soft drinks were ranked 7th. So to suggest that we're just going to ignore the rest of those treat or discretionary kilojoules is to be frank, quite absurd.

EMMA ALBERICI: It's important to note though that the national health survey that's conducted by the Australian Bureau of Statistics is well known to be fairly unreliable in terms of establishing exactly what people are consuming because it's a self-reporting mechanism. So in other words people have to be honest about what they've had for breakfast, lunch and dinner and not too many want to admit they've let their children necessarily have a soft drink or a sugary confectionary or something else. So I guess that is limited in its - in its reliability when we're analysing such things?

GEOFF PARKER: Sure Emma and look the, you know, the case of under-reporting in these types of surveys is well documented. I guess, from an industry and a public health perspective it's the best that we've got.

MIKE RAYNER: Okay well no one is saying that attacks on sugary drinks is going to solve the problem. But what it's done in various countries and now in the UK is really tell people, signalled to people that sugary drinks are not part of a healthy diet. It's meant I think the debate about the sugary drinks tax in Britain has actually helped people realise that they should be cutting down on their sugar.

And so I think if your government too was to introduce the tax it will create a strong signal to people that they need to reduce their sugar consumption. Yes they maybe need - a need to tax other things as well but let's start with the sugary drinks.

EMMA ALBERICI: Just one final thing and that was on the issue of education, how reliable is some of the information being fed to the public given so much of it is sponsored by food companies and soda companies? I'll start with you, Professor Rayner.

MIKE RAYNER: Yeah, I think there is a lot of confusion around at the moment around sugar and fat in particular. And people like the WHO are doing their best to clarify the messages, to people, I think our governments should also be very clear about what the health messages are based on the latest scientific advice, and actually the industry should not get involve in educating the public about what is good for their health. It's the Government's role to come with clear health messages for their citizens.


DAMON GAMEAU: Yeah, I would agree that. I think from our feedback is that people are really disillusioned, they've lost faith in big business and in the government and they don't want them telling them what to eat anymore. They just - they've lost faith and I think that's why they're turning to you know, social media and people that really don't have the expertise and training, they're looking for answers because they don't trust the normal sources and we know from studies now that people even get their advice from a packet. 55 per cent actually get it from a packet compared to 25 per cent to a health advocate. So again, really makes it important that we're very clear with what we're putting on these packets to help people out because it's very confusing for them.

EMMA ALBERICI: Geoff Parker, I'll give you the final word. Do you think there - let me rephrase, why should people have faith in any research at all on the health benefits or otherwise of food and drink when it's being funded by companies like yours?

GEOFF PARKER: Well look, we're really open, Emma, and when we do fund research and we're not suggesting that, you know, to only look at industry funded research and nothing else. Let's look at the totality of evidence. Let's look at it like research from academia, let's look at research from NGOs and from government. Some of -

EMMA ALBERICI: But a lot that's been paid by food and drink companies as well. That's the problem, isn't it?

GEOFF PARKER: Yeah well there's a bit of a conundrum, Emma, when governments are withdrawing funding from research organisations and those research organisations are coming to industry and asking for funding. We're completely open. We don't - the beverages council certainly does not influence the methodology or the approach to different scientific research and we're all about rigor and robustness of the totality of the evidence.

EMMA ALBERICI: Unfortunately we're out of time. Damon Gameau, Mike Rayner, Geoff Parker, thank you all very much your time tonight.

DAMON GAMEAU: Thanks Emma.

GEOFF PARKER: Thanks Emma.

EMMA ALBERICI: We asked you whether Australia should introduce a sugar tax and here's a sample of some of the feedback we received.

Renee Newbury was concerned that it would be just an excuse for more tax given the the considerable amount that's already been generated from alcohol and tobacco.

Eks Tielemans makes the point that a bottle of water in some stores is more expensive than a bottle of drink - soft drink. "This does not make sense at all," she says.

And Lorraine Dean Rodda tells us she has type two diabetes and strongly supports the need to better label manufactured goods with graphics indicating how many spoonfuls of sugars.

There were 5500 votes in this week's poll, does Australia need a sugar tax?

On Facebook, 74 per cent of you said yes, a tax is needed. That result was also reflected on Twitter where almost 500 people voted, 70 per cent of you also agreed we do need a sugar tax.