Election 2023: Chris Hipkins rules out sugar tax after free dental policy announcement

Labour has been quick to rule out a targeted sugar tax after announcing its new free dental policy. 

Chris Hipkins at the weekend said tackling the dental care crisis would be a priority if Labour is re-elected. The party leader promised to extend basic free dental care to all New Zealanders aged under 30. 

But questions are being raised about the funding level for the flagship policy, with the Dental Association saying the $380 million Labour had budgeted was too low. 

Hipkins admitted more dentists would be needed for the policy to work. 

"That's why we've said we'll step it out over the next three years and we have started with an age cohort we believe we can deliver to," he told AM on Tuesday. 

"We've done this before, so when we were stepping out free doctors' visits for children, for example, we did it by age band and we did it over a number of years - actually, over a number of parliamentary terms - and we managed to get free health care for children by doing that. I think we can deliver free dental care for New Zealanders by taking the same approach." 

Hipkins said a future Labour Government would continue with current health programmes in place around sugar. However, there were no plans for any kind of sugar tax, he said. 

"A sugar tax isn't on the table," he told AM co-host Laura Tupou. "But there are some things we are doing in this area, for example the work that we've done around fizzy drinks in schools and healthier options in schools - that'll actually have an intergenerational impact." 

Hipkins said Labour's free dental policy was evidence-based. 

"We know that, in people's 20s, that's when tooth decay actually starts to really accelerate - so we chose the 20s age demographic to roll out the next steps quite deliberately." 

He believed tackling tooth decay in a person's early years would prevent people needing dental care in later life. 

"I think dental treatment is still important even if you're getting people eating healthier and having less sugar, you still want people to be able to go and get checkups and to get x-rays and to have and to have any dental problems that they've got identified relatively early on." 

New Zealand was ranked the 10th-highest sugar consumers per capita in the world in 2020, with the health costs estimated at $896 million in 2021. 

One-in-three New Zealand adults experience tooth decay, according to the Ministry of Health, while one in 10 suffered from root decay.