How do we keep the public onside as we regulate sugary drinks?

In a fascinating new paper published in the Sax Institute journal PHRP, Professor Caroline Miller, Director of the Health Policy Centre at the South Australian Health and Medical Research Institute, discusses the policy options that could best target potential regulation of sugary drinks. Here, she discusses the ins and outs of keeping the public onside.

Australia has a problem with sugary drinks. We are major consumers of them, and yet we know they contribute to a whole range of health issues, including obesity, type 2 diabetes, tooth decay and heart disease. At the same time, we have been slow to take policy action, lagging behind nations such as the UK and Mexico where sugar taxes have already been implemented to demonstrable effect.

As our policymakers consider how they might regulate consumption, it is critical to their success that they bring the public with them. But there has been very little research into how consumers view the potential regulation of sugary drinks. Our new study, published by Public Health Research & Practice, a peer-reviewed journal of the Sax Institute, offers insights into how policy options can be best framed so they are broadly acceptable to the people they are targeting. We conducted focus groups with 59 consumers of sugary drinks and asked them what they thought about a range of potential government interventions to curb overconsumption.

The good news is that participants generally accepted that obesity is a public health problem and that governments have a role in intervening. But they were initially wary of the different regulatory measures put to them in our focus groups, in particular taxation. This wariness seemed to be rooted in notions of freedom of choice and personal responsibility — libertarian-type responses often used by the food and beverage industries in their opposition to health-related regulation.

But personal responsibility was also cited by some participants in favour of government intervention. They argued that governments should inform and educate consumers, thereby preventing misinformation and enabling truly informed choice.

A key finding was that ‘regulation’ itself is a widely misunderstood term, with participants often equating it with the outright banning of sugary drinks. But we found these negative notions could often be turned around by providing factual information and encouraging informed discussion.

Interventions aimed at children found most favour, reflecting a belief that children are more vulnerable to the marketing of unhealthy products and do not have the ability to make the same informed judgements as adults.

Taxing sugary drinks was the least popular regulatory option among study participants, but we found that opposition could be softened if taxation was paired with other interventions to curb obesity. This underlines the importance of contextualising sugary drink regulation within broader obesity prevention strategies, allaying consumer fears that certain products are being unfairly targeted. We know from previous research we’ve done that a health levy (taxation coupled with other interventions) does in fact have majority community support.

Here are a few takeaway messages from our study for health policy makers thinking about the future regulation of sugary drinks and how to frame it:

  • The concept of personal responsibility is inescapable in the health prevention policy debate — but policymakers can turn this to their advantage by framing policy changes as promoting autonomy by helping people make informed choices
  • Regulatory measures should be promoted as being protective of children’s health and their futures
  • Support for regulation can be strengthened by offering factual information such as the sugar content of sugary drinks and the health risks people run through overconsumption
  • People are more likely to be supportive if the regulation of sugary drinks sits within a broader strategy to combat obesity.

Professor Caroline Miller is Director of the Health Policy Centre at the South Australian Health and Medical Research Institute (SAHMRI).

You can access Professor Miller’s full paper here

Find out more about the PHRP journal here