Sugar tax support in Australia: Messaging needs to go beyond ‘concerns over practices in the food industry’ – Study

By Audrey Yow

- Last updated on GMT

Targeted messaging based on personal characteristics and demographics might have more success in garnering support for controversial sugar taxes than focusing on the impact to the food industry © Getty Images
Targeted messaging based on personal characteristics and demographics might have more success in garnering support for controversial sugar taxes than focusing on the impact to the food industry © Getty Images

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Targeted messaging based on personal characteristics and demographics might have more success in garnering support for controversial sugar taxes than focusing on the impact to the food industry, claim researchers in Australia.

Several countries in APAC and the Middle East have implemented such policies in recent years in efforts to curb diabetes and obesity. However, they have often come under fire from industry and some consumers, especially in a time of economic uncertainty.

However, in Australia where sugar-sweetened beverage consumption per capita is high, and calls for a sugar tax are frequent, there is no such tax and policymakers are generally not supportive of it.

In an effort to better understand consumer views, researchers in Australia recently conducted a cross-sectional survey analysis and found that ‘persuasive message framing’ had minimal effect, and that support for policies like the sugar-sweetened beverage tax tends to depend more on the personal traits of the individuals involved.

Crucially, such messaging needs to go beyond concerns over practices in the food industry, they wrote.

“Message framing is a popular strategy used by health promotion advocates. However, we found it has a minimal effect on the level of support for a sugar-sweetened beverage tax,”​ wrote the researchers in Health Promotion International​.

“Even though there may be concern regarding the practices of the food industry it is important for advocates to remember what messages may resonate with the public when communicating about public health policy.”

From December 2019 to February 2020, a nationally representative sample of 1,519 Australian adults was recruited for an online experimental survey.

Three persuasive frames and one control frame were randomly provided to participants. Block 1 was the control frame. Block 2 was the ‘protecting teenagers’ frame. Block 3 was the ‘supportive of food and drink companies’ frame. Block 4 was the ‘anti-sugary drinks companies’ frame.

Based on the results from studying the influence of frames among different groups, few clear associations were found except for the ‘protecting teenagers’ frame, which showed higher levels of support from rural participants.

“This may relate to the importance of family values in rural areas. This finding has important implications for future advocacy efforts as it highlights the importance of nuance in messaging,” noted the researchers.

Apart from this, the researchers found that persuasive message framing had minimal effect on the level of support for the tax.

On the other hand, the researchers found that personal characteristics did play a role in level of support for the sugar-sweetened beverage tax.

“Regardless of frames used, we saw higher levels of support for an SSB tax among Green voters, those with higher levels of education, those who watch the news frequently and those who consume minimal quantities of sugar-sweetened beverages,” said the researchers.

Additionally, positive feelings towards a sugar-sweetened beverage tax were highest in the group that received the ‘support food and drink companies’ frame. This finding corresponds to previous research where participants expressed concern about the impact of taxes on the industry and did not want to disadvantage them.

This frame couched taxes as being beneficial to industry as it would encourage them to reformulate, innovate and ultimately make more money from healthier beverages – a notion that would likely be challenged by some in industry and many trade bodies.

“Our findings demonstrate that using persuasive language that resonates with participants may only have a small impact overall and that support for policies such as the sugar-sweetened beverage tax varies more based on the personal characteristics of participants,” said the researchers.

They acknowledged that more research is needed to understand the contextual elements of framing and how it impacts different population groups. However, they said that this study adds to the understanding of public opinion in the context of public health policies and the role framing plays.

“While it is extremely efficient for advocates to use one message to target a population, our findings highlight that targeted messages for different population groups may be required,” the researchers concluded.

Source: Health Promotion International

DOI: 10.1093/heapro/daad193

“Effect of message framing on support for a sugar-sweetened beverage tax in Australia: a cross-sectional survey analysis”

Authors: Katherine Cullerton et al​.

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