The sale of sugary drinks has been banned in public hospitals in Western Australia as part of measures to combat obesity, which has been applauded by health groups but criticised by the beverages industry as “overreach”.
- Sugary drinks are now banned in hospital cafes or vending machines
- The policy to tackle obesity has been welcomed by health groups
- But the beverages lobby says it erodes consumers’ rights
Under the policy, all vending machines and retail outlets including cafes, gift shops and kiosks can no longer sell sugar-sweetened drinks that have low or no nutritional value.
That includes soft drinks, iced tea, energy and sports drinks and some fruit juices, flavoured waters and milks.
However, sugar-free soft drinks — including diet soft drinks — are still allowed provided they are no larger than 600ml.
Health Department acting assistant director-general public and Aboriginal health Denise Sullivan said the policy was aimed at addressing the growing obesity problem.
“Currently, around 70 per cent of adults are overweight or obese and 25 per cent of kids, so it really falls on the department to ensure that we are also reflecting the health messages that we are promoting out in the community, which is around ensuring that there are healthy choice options available,” Ms Sullivan said.
The measure is an extension of the department’s Healthy Options WA: Food and Nutrition policy, which uses a “traffic light” labelling system similar to that used in school canteens.
Half of all food and drinks sold must be “green”, or low in saturated fat, added sugar and salt, with a maximum of 20 per cent “red” or unhealthy foods.
An audit of the policy in 2019 revealed none of WA’s hospitals had fully complied with the mandatory policy to serve healthier food to visitors.
Ms Sullivan said the rollout of the latest ‘healthy options’ measure began in February, adding she expected hospitals to comply.
“We’re seeing good progress primarily within our major metropolitan hospitals, so sugar-sweetened beverages have for the most part disappeared from our vending machines.
[There’s] a little bit of work still to be done in terms of the cafeteria food services, but expectations are that we’ll see good compliance in time,” she said.
Ms Sullivan said the policy was now among the strictest in the country, with similar bans in place in Victoria and Queensland.
Cancer Council calls for policy extension
Cancer Council WA cancer prevention and research director Melissa Ledger said it was important for hospitals to take the lead in “providing healthy environments”.
“Given that sugary drinks are making us sick, they’re increasing our chances of weight gain and a number of diseases, it’s really great leadership from our hospitals,” Ms Ledger said.
“Most of us want to be healthy, [but] it’s hard to be healthy when we are surrounded by the promotion and marketing of sugary drinks and so this healthy option policy just makes it so much easier for us to be healthy,” she said.
Ms Ledger called for the policy to be extended to other facilites.
“It would be incredible leadership to see healthy options policies rolled out across other government agencies and public facilities, so this is a first step in what is a really promising opportunity to have environments that support us to be as healthy as we can be,” she said.
‘We know what choices to make’
But Australian Beverages Council spokeswoman Cathy Cook said Australians were already making healthier decisions and the new policy removed consumers’ right to choose what they drink.
“What we’ve seen is a trend of Australians making informed choices and healthier choices while still reserving the right to have a choice to have that little treat when they want to treat themselves and we’ve all treated ourselves a little during COVID,” Ms Cook said.
“When you remove all choices from Australians — of everything but what a particular group decides is a healthy choice — I think it disrespects Australians,” she said.
“We’re seeing Australians making great choices and whilst we support all efforts to actually make healthy products available for all Australians, it does seem to be a little bit of overreach.”
But Ms Sullivan said banned drinks purchased outside of hospitals would still be allowed at the facilities.
“It doesn’t stop people from consuming sugar-sweetened beverages, they just won’t be able to buy it in our hospitals,” she said.