Two in three Australians are overweight or obese, and the next generation of young people is heading the same way as 75 per cent are eating more sugar than ever before, new figures reveal.
A deadly intake of sugar-laden foods and drinks has prompted a leading expert to call on the federal government to act now to introduce a new tax on sugary beverages.
Sydney University's Professor Stephen Colagiuri called on the Turnbull government to make the introduction of the controversial sugar tax proposals a top priority.
His research and Australian Bureau of Statistics data showed almost 75 per cent of people aged nine to 18 exceed World Health Organisation sugar-intake recommendations.
But the federal government remains staunchly opposed to any tax on sugary drinks or other unhealthy food choices.
Assistant Health Minister David Gillespie said a sugar tax would be moralistic and a "nanny state" response.
Professor Colagiuri's research paper, set to be published in the Medical Journal of Australia on Monday, shows in 2011-12 Australians consumed an average of 60 grams of "free" sugars each day.
That's the equivalent of 14 teaspoons of sugar a day, above the recommended intake of less than 10 per cent of total energy intake coming from free sugars, which including those naturally present in foods like fruit and vegetables and those added to foods and drinks by the manufacturer.
For the recommended average adult daily diet of 8700 kilojoules, 5 per cent free sugar is equivalent to six teaspoons of added sugar.
Young men aged 14 to 18 had the biggest sugar habits: They averaged the equivalent of 21 teaspoons of free sugar each day, with 10 per cent consuming 160 grams of sugar - equivalent to 23 per cent of their daily energy intake.
Males aged between four and 30 averaged 750 millilitres per day, equivalent to two standard cans of soft drink.
More than half of free sugars in Australian diets come from sugary drinks, led by soft drinks and energy drinks, with 35 per cent of those aged between 51 and 70 are exceeding WHO recommendations of less than 10 per cent of daily energy intake from sugar for adults and children.
Australia is among the leading markets for sugary beverages, consumed by 47 per cent of children and 31 per cent of adults.
Professor Colagiuri said accumulating evidence linking weight gain, diabetes and dental problems with sugary drinks showed voluntary responses had failed, with controls similar to those on alcohol and tobacco warranted.
Britain will tax sugary beverages from 2018, with similar measures in Mexico leading to a 12 per cent reduction in sales in 2014, before a modest up-tick in 2015.
For initially non-obese adults, each daily increase of a can of soft drink is linked to 0.5 kilogram weight gain every four years, while women with high sugary drink consumption gained five kilograms more over eight years.
"Food products such as sugar-sweetened beverages were not primarily developed to cause harm, but when harm is demonstrated it is often denied or challenged by those with vested interests," Professor Colagiuri said.
"We don't really control our food choices. Over many years, food manufacturers have increased the size of a standard sugar-sweetened beverages portion by approximately three-fold in the knowledge that larger containers alter the norm of appropriate portion sizes and increase consumption."
Dr Gillespie, a gastroenterologist appointed to the assistant health ministry in January, said Denmark had repealed its sugar tax and dropped plans for a tax on saturated fats.
"Cut to the chase: the thing with all of the proponents of sugar taxes, fat taxes, whatever tax, is taxes will make people angry and it won't change what they eat," he told Fairfax Media.
"This is a day-to-day survival, personal choice issue which transcends economics. People buy what they like and we as a government aren't going to moralise and tell them that we feel better for putting taxes on certain products."
The Nationals MP said the government's new Healthy Food Partnership program was leading to better nutrition and consumer education.
Sugar and soft drink manufacturers maintain a strong lobbying presence in federal Parliament. Industry leader Coca Cola has five registered external lobbyists in Canberra, four of whom are former government employees.
Australian Beverages Council chief executive Geoff Parker said a sugar tax proposal released by the University of Melbourne this week was regressive and would cause financial stress for low-income Australians.
"Taxes don't teach healthy habits," he said.
Public Health Association of Australia chief executive Michael Moore said taxing unhealthy food alone would be ineffective and governments should also look at the marketing of junk foods, in particular, to children.
"On the one hand we can encourage better, healthier personal choice through personal responsibility," Mr Moore said.
"On the other hand, the government has an important responsibility regarding the unhealthy food environment that is behind excessive consumption of sugar, saturated fat and salt."
Kathy Chapman, chairwoman of the Cancer Council of Australia's nutrition and physical activity committee, said the problem of obesity could not be tackled by education alone.
"There is more evidence about how different sorts of taxing mechanisms, as well as subsidies on the healthy food, would really lead to important gains in terms of the number of lives saved and the number of disease reduced.
"It is not about controlling people's behaviour. It is about making the environment and the settings more conducive to healthy eating," Ms Chapman said.
The story Sugar tax proposals divide experts and federal government first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.