Tax soft-drinks to reduce obesity, says leading psychologist

Governments need to take a stronger role in addressing the factors that contribute to obesity, including tightening food regulations and taxing soft drinks, according to a leading US psychologist presenting at the 46th Australian Psychological Society Annual Conference in Canberra today.

Professor Kelly Brownell, from the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity at Yale University, says that we are now living in a “toxic environment” which is contributing to spiralling worldwide rates of obesity.

“From a psychological perspective, human beings respond to what we call environmental defaults. In eating terms this means they will eat foods that are most easily available, least expensive, and most heavily marketed. If the school canteen serves junk food, school children will eat junk food. If the school canteen serves healthy food, children will eat healthy food.”

Professor Brownell is part of a multi-disciplinary team, drawn from psychology, health, nutrition, economics, public health, business and the law, focusing on the causes and prevention of obesity and other nutrition problems.  The group is examining the factors that affect obesity from eating behaviour through to food pricing, and the marketing and advertising of food products.

He said a multi-pronged approach that addressed behaviour, biology, environment and food policy was needed as in the current food environment many people would struggle to eat healthily.

“Food companies know that people have trouble eating reasonable amounts of foods engineered to taste so good, so they load foods with things that boost profits but can contribute to ill health such as sugar, fat, and salt.”

Such foods are also often the cheapest, the most available and the most heavily marketed.
He says both the population and the Government should protest.

“The public got angry about cigarettes and rose up to demand that government take action to curb the extraordinary toll this product took on health and well-being. People are becoming more aware of parallels with food and are asking government officials to become involved,” Professor Brownell says.

Governments need to take a stronger role and taxing sugar beverages, or soft-drinks, is a possible place to start.

“We have seen how effective tobacco taxes have been in reducing rates of smoking so there is no reason to believe such taxes wouldn’t be as effective in reducing the consumption of high sugar and fat foods.  A soft-drink tax is a good place to start,” Professor Brownell says. “We need to help people to change their eating behaviour by creating a more positive food environment.”

He says food companies have not made significant changes in their sales and marketing practices, despite many promises to do so, particularly with respect to children.

“The aim of any business is to make their products appealing. The food companies have done this by tapping into human biology that makes foods high in calories taste especially good,” Professor Brownell says. “However, a car manufacturer couldn’t remove the airbags from a new car to make it look better - Government wouldn’t allow it.  Likewise the Government should create policies that promote healthy rather than unhealthy foods.”

He said psychologists could help people to understand how they are being affected by food marketing and other negative aspects of the food environment.

“Obesity is a serious health issue that is affecting people in India and China as well as the Western world.  We need to act to address the environmental factors that are driving obesity, insist on corporate responsibility, and ask Government to be involved in a constructive way,” Professor Brownell said.

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