Govt sour on sugar tax report

Two years after bringing in a 10 percent soft drink tax, sales in Mexico have dropped 12 percent (file)
Two years after bringing in a 10 percent soft drink tax, sales in Mexico have dropped 12 percent (file)

The World Health Organization is about to endorse an international report calling for a sugar tax.

But despite the chair of the Commission on Ending Childhood Obesity -- which produced the report -- being Sir Peter Gluckman, Prime Minister John Key's chief science advisor, the Government still has no plans to introduce such a tax.

New Zealand has the fourth-highest rate of childhood obesity in the world, but the Government has repeatedly ruled out  using tax to try and curb consumption of high-calorie, sugar-filled soft drinks -- insisting there is no evidence it will do anything to curb childhood obesity.

"The bottom line is, and I'm surprised these guys are so focused on this, there is no evidence," Health Minister Dr Jonathan Coleman recently told Radio New Zealand. "There's actually a heck of a lot else that can be done."

The "guys" Dr Coleman is talking about are 74 academics, who at the weekend penned an open letter calling on the Government to implement a sugar tax.

"If you're expecting every single strategy… to have undeniable proof that it in itself will reduce childhood obesity, then we will be sitting on our hands forever," says Boyd Swinburn, professor of population nutrition and global health at the University of Auckland, one of the signees.

"Don't forget it's not just obesity -- it's also dental caries and dental health. Five-thousand children under eight undergo general anaesthetic every year to have rotten teeth pulled out.

"There's undeniable evidence of the effect of sugary drinks on rotten teeth, and the evidence for sugary drinks on obesity is as strong, if not stronger, than anything in the Government's existing [strategy]."

Prof Swinburn says Dr Coleman's claim there is no proof a sugar tax will work just isn't true. Two years after bringing in a 10 percent soft drink tax, sales in Mexico have dropped 12 percent.

Without a tax, Prof Swinburn says all New Zealand has are "relatively soft policies like education and health programmes", which won't work as effectively as a straight-up hit to the pocket.

"If we want people to think their way through it then we wouldn't need to have laws on seatbelts, we wouldn't need to have workplace safety laws, we wouldn't need to have tobacco controls and restrictions. I'm afraid that's the condition of humanity."

Concerns have been raised a sugar tax will unfairly target low-income families, who generally spend a higher percentage of their income on sugary drinks. Prof Swinburn says while this has to be taken into consideration, they also stand to reap the greatest benefits.

"We've actually been through this with tobacco tax and yes, it does have an effect on people with lower incomes more than people with higher incomes, but the thing is that they get much greater health benefits from it. They're more likely to quit smoking, they're more likely to reduce their sugary drinks consumption, they're much more likely to get health benefits -- so the health effects are actually progressive, not regressive."

Academics say a 20 percent tax on sugary drinks will raise between $30 and $40 million a year that could be spent on anti-obesity efforts, as well as saving money that would have been spent on dental operations.

Other recommendations in the WHO report include restricting marketing of unhealthy food to children, improving nutrition labelling, getting unhealthy food out of schools and children's sports facilities and increasing access to healthy food in disadvantaged communities.

The full report can be found on the WHO website.