NACCHO Aboriginal health news alert :War on sugar: Food industry likened to big tobacco in debate


The food and beverage sector is hitting back against new campaigns aimed at reducing sugar consumption, prompting critics to compare the industry’s position to that of tobacco companies decades ago.

ABC Report

In Australia, three major health organisations want a sugar tax on all sweetened beverages – not just soft drinks, but also products like flavoured milk and sports drinks – to limit consumption.

Meanwhile, in Britain a campaign called Action on Sugar has just been launched, hoping to reverse that country’s obesity epidemic by targeting the “huge and unnecessary amounts of sugar that are currently being added to our food and soft drinks”.

The campaign’s expert advisors include heavyweights from the scientific and medical community.

And last month leaked draft guidelines from the World Health Organisation (WHO) suggested the organisation is considering halving the recommended daily intake of sugar from ten teaspoons to five.

Its latest “global strategy on diet” also says an unhealthy diet is a major risk factor for chronic disease and recommends reducing sugar intake to help prevent conditions like type 2 diabetes and dental problems.

Australia’s Food and Grocery Council, however, says there is nothing wrong with sugar.

The council’s deputy chief executive, Geoffrey Annison, says scientific evidence, including data from WHO, shows that sugar is not related to obesity.

“There’s no demonstration that sugar of itself is particularly obesogenic or related to any health outcomes,” he said.

Professor Greg Johnson from Diabetes Australia says the Food and Grocery Council argument is eerily familiar.

“These are the sorts of responses that we saw out of the tobacco industry decades ago, when we first started hearing from the College of Surgeons in the United States and leading clinicians and researchers around the problems of tobacco and ill health,” he said.

“So it’s not a surprise to hear this. But all we can say is: look at the evidence that’s coming out and being talked about by many independent, reputable experts and organisations around the world.”

Diabetes Australia calls for sugar tax on sweetened drinks

Professor Johnson says the UK’s Action on Sugar campaign has the right idea.

Diabetes Australia is calling for a sugar tax on sweetened drinks, as just one of a series of measures to combat Australia’s rising obesity rates and the rise in diabetes.

“Australia’s in the top 10 countries for the per capita consumption of these products,” he said.

“From 2007 we know that one in two, nearly 50 per cent of all Australian children consume sugar-sweetened beverages every day. Every day.

“There is no dietary need to have sugar-sweetened beverages. And the other part of it is: they’re particularly associated with weight gain.”

The Food and Grocery Council says the industry is already responding by putting out low-calorie products.

Dr Annison claims not only is there no direct correlation between sugar consumption and obesity but Australia’s sugar consumption is dropping.

“There’s absoutely no doubt that we’re consuming less sugar than before,” he said.

“For example, in 1938 they were consuming about 55 kilograms per person, and it went down to 42 kg per person by 2011.”

3 comments on “NACCHO Aboriginal health news alert :War on sugar: Food industry likened to big tobacco in debate

  1. Governments should lead by example – say no to the junk food industry

    “Telling parents to ‘just say no’ to their children’s requests for junk food is so simplistic as to be laughable”, says Associate Professor Heather Yeatman, President of the Public Health Association of Australia (PHAA). Governments can’t ignore their own responsibility when it comes to our children’s health.”

    Federal Health Minister Peter Dutton rightly identified that “The Government can’t and shouldn’t be in people’s kitchens,’’ but they certainly should be taking much more of their own responsibility. “Governments can just say no to limit junk food advertising to our children; no to the sponsorship of children’s sports by junk food companies, and no to the high levels of sugars, salt and fat in processed foods” says Professor Yeatman. “It would appear that just say no is not as easy as the Health Minister suggests.”

    The PHAA shares the Minister’s and other health and medical organisations’ concerns about overweight and obesity, but laying the blame on parents is not a solution to the problem.

    “We know that the industry’s self-regulation advertising code is not effective when it comes to controlling junk food advertising; we know that the junk food industry (together with the alcohol industry) is now associated with almost all sports codes, and in particular children’s sports; and we know that sugar is 23-24% of our energy intake from foods (it should be less than 20%) and saturated fat is 13-14 % of energy (should be less than 10%)” say Michael Moore, CEO of the PHAA.

    “We have been working with government to bring about changes in these areas, but for the sake of our children, more change needs to happen, more quickly,” says Mr Moore. “One initiative that it ready to be implemented is Front of Pack labelling – information that will assist parents to select healthy foods. This should start immediately.”

    We know from the actions taken by governments on smoking that such interventions do make a significant difference. We also know from the smoking issue that telling people to ‘just say no’ doesn’t work.

    “For the Minister to say to parents ‘just say no’ trivialises the importance of childhood overweight and obesity. Our children’s health is more important. Government’s should be the ones to ‘Just say no’ to industry influence over our children’s lives”.
    For further information/comment:

    Michael Moore CEO PHAA 0417 249 731 or 02


    The World Health Organisation takes a tough stand on sugar. It’s about time we listened.

    Michelle Hughes | Jan 06, 2014
    Thanks to David Gillespie, author of Sweet Poison, for providing this update on the WHO’s latest report on sugar.

    The special interest groups will no doubt be raising their voices in the not too distant future. Readers might also be interested in this recent publication on the relationship between financial conflict of interest and research on the impact of sugar sweetened beverages.

    Last week the WHO (World Health Organization) leaked a draft report about sugar. The report will tell the world’s health authorities that they should be severely limiting the amount of sugar we all eat. It will recommend that we consume no more than 5 teaspoons of sugar a day. Given the average Australian is putting away somewhere closer to 35-45 teaspoons a day, it’s a very big call indeed.

    The WHO is the health policy unit of the United Nations. Its aim is provide evidence based leadership on health research. It is well funded, free from corporate influence and motivated entirely by a desire to ensure that the 92 UN member countries get the best possible, evidence based, health advice. The WHO doesn’t run a Tick program or receive sponsorship from the processed food industry. Indeed it has even recently taken the extraordinary step of banning one ‘research’ group sponsored by industry from participating in its decision making processes.

    Shrinath Reddy, a cardiologist and member of the WHO panel of experts, told the Sunday Times the WHO is moving on sugar because “There is overwhelming evidence coming out about sugar-sweetened beverages and other sugar consumption links to obesity, diabetes and even cardiovascular disease.”

    The worldwide burden for those diseases is accelerating very quickly. According to a new report out this week the number of overweight and obese in the developing world has quadrupled since 1980.

    A billion people in the developing world are now on the chronic disease express. But don’t worry, we still win. Less than a third of the population in China and India is overweight compared to our two thirds or more. They are just starting to get the hang of this Western Diet Thingy, so expect very big rises in the very near future.

    The WHO have looked dispassionately at the evidence and have seen the tsunami of human misery caused by sugar coming for more than a decade. They publicly warned that sugar was strongly implicated in obesity, type II diabetes, hypertension and heart disease in 2003.

    They then took the extraordinary step of telling member governments that they should ensure their populations limited sugar consumption to a maximum of 10% of total calories (around 10 teaspoons of sugar a day – the same amount you would find in a Coke or a large Apple Juice). They did this despite an overt and vicious public campaign conducted by the Food industry.

    The US sugar lobby demanded that the US Congress end its $406 million funding of the WHO. This is the same WHO that co-ordinates global action against epidemics like HIV, Bird Flu and SARS. But the US food industry wanted it destroyed because it dared to suggest we eat less sugar.

    The lobbying behind the scenes was even more ruthless. Derek Yach, the WHO Executive Director who drove the sugar reduction policy work told a British documentary crew in 2004, that millions were spent trying to torpedo the policy. US Senators wrote directly to the WHO threatening its very existence. They also threatened the Food and Agriculture Organisation (a sister UN department concerned with food production) with a cut in funding.

    In the end the food industry campaign paid off. The WHO removed its 10% recommendation from the final text of its recommendation. It was watered down to a suggestion that people ‘cut the amount of sugar in the diet’.

    As one of the people involved at the time, Professor Phillip James, Chairman of the International Obesity Taskforce, predicted “we’ll end up with nice little policies telling [us] to have ‘just a bit less sugar and a little more balanced diet’ the nonsense that’s gone on since the Second World War during which time we’ve had this vast epidemic of heart disease, diabetes and obesity.”

    Even the briefest glance at the official dietary guidance on sugar in Australia or the UK will tell you Professor James wasn’t too far from the mark with his prediction. Our guidelines are stuffed with words like ‘moderation’ and ‘balanced diet’ when it comes to sugar.

    But the thing about evidence is, it doesn’t go away. And in the 10 years since the WHO last tried to save us from sugar, the evidence has become overwhelming (to quote Dr Reddy).

    The WHO got a serious kicking when they tried to suggest a 10 teaspoon upper limit on sugar consumption, so you can imagine that the evidence they have reviewed must be truly overpowering to have them step up to the plate again. But this time they want the limit to be 5% (5 teaspoons) or less. I hope they’re wearing their flak jackets because I suspect a whole heap of blood money from the processed food industry is pouring into ‘lobbyists’ pockets as we speak.

    The WHO is not running down sugar because it hates sugar farmers. It is not doing it because it likes getting mauled by the US Government (and its sponsors). It’s doing it because we will all suffer immensely if we don’t act on its advice.

    I don’t know if the WHO can withstand the punishment they are about to receive. And I have no confidence that their recommended limit will make it through the firestorm of food industry sponsored ‘science’ which will suddenly surface. But I do know that when good people decide the evidence is so powerful that they should say it anyway, then the rest of us better be bloody listening.

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