Sweet power: the politics of sugar, sugary drinks and poor nutrition in Australia

Unhealthy diets and poor nutrition are leading contributors to Australia’s burden of disease and burgeoning health-care costs. In 1980, just 10% of Australian adults were obese, today that figure is 28% – among the highest in the world.

And yet, as shown on Monday night’s Four Corners’ episode – which was a stunning expose of food, nutrition and health politics in Australia – successive governments have done little to address it.

What the program highlighted was as important as what it did not. It showed a clear need for a sugar-sweetened beverage tax and a national strategy with a comprehensive package of measures to reduce obesity.

What we also urgently need (and which wasn’t noted in the program) is a national nutrition policy, based on the Australian Dietary Guidelines, to promote healthy diets and good nutrition more broadly. It is long overdue – we haven’t had one since 1992.

Arguably the most important reason for why none of this currently exists is the gorilla in the policy-making room: the political might of Big Food to undermine support for policy reform. Why does Big Food hold such a powerful grip on Australian food and nutrition policy?

The political power of Big Food

The Four Corners program is consistent with our prior research showing that Big Food’s power to obfuscate, delay and undermine food and nutrition policy reform stems from several sources. These include its economic importance as an industry and employer, access to and influence with political decision makers, and the adoption of self-regulatory codes (for instance on marketing and food labelling) as a means to pre-empt, and substitute for, government regulation.

Read more: Fat nation: the rise and fall of obesity on the political agenda

Many tactics used by these transnational, economic titans sway public policy against what health research shows is the best way forward. Among these are lobbyists disputing the evidence base, companies like Coca-Cola funding research to confuse the science and deflect blame away from dietary intake, and donations by companies to political parties to gain access and influence.

Companies like Coca-Cola have…

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