The statistics are alarming – New Zealand has the third highest proportion of overweight children in the developed world, and our adult statistics are worse, with 67% being obese or overweight. Nearly half of all adult Maori are obese, but that rises to nearly 70% in Pacific Islanders. (Information obtained from the Ministry of Health.) Like all complex problems, there is no one answer that will solve the issue of our corpulence – but several eminent ‘experts’ are touting a sugar tax as being the best weapon to win this battle.
Where once fat was the enemy, our focus has shifted to sugar, which is now seen as the real culprit behind our obesity epidemic – but is a sugar tax the solution? The only comparison we can make is the government’s war against smoking, with their chief battle plan to make the cost of smoking so prohibitive that people will be forced to quit because of the expense. But, is it working? Well, apparently it is – between 2010 and 2014 there was an annual 6% drop in the amount of people smoking.
Our supermarket aisles are loaded with sugary items – from carbonated drinks to breakfast cereals, sweets, biscuits and cakes. It is estimated that most children consume about 17 teaspoons of sugar a day – (the recommended intake is six) and there is no doubt we are all eating and drinking too much sugar. Sugar is linked to higher incidences of chronic conditions such as diabetes, stroke, cancer and heart disease, and dental conditions such as gum disease and tooth decay. We can all agree that obesity and chronic diseases are the greatest health challenges facing this country.
A Christchurch doctor, asked what he thought of the benefits of a proposed sugar tax, compared it to his experience in assisting his patients to give up smoking. When asked why they wanted to give up smoking, the majority of his patients said it was not because of their on-going health issues, not because of a fear of cancer, or their chronic cough – it was the financial cost that their habit was having on their lives. It is easy enough to ignore the possibility of lung cancer and emphysema – but the real and present economic issues of paying $25.00 a day for cigarettes for the pack-a-day smoker is forcing them make the hard decision to stop.
Taxing tobacco is working in this country – with double sided benefits. The tax makes smoking expensive, therefore people can’t afford to smoke – and the revenue gained from the tax provides the government with the funds to take care of the medical issues of those who choose not to stop.
A sugar tax was introduced in California three years ago, which has resulted in a 20% reduction in the sales of fizzy and sugar laden drinks – compared to an average increase of 4% in the rest of the United States.
Will it work in New Zealand? We may not get the opportunity to find out, if the civil libertarians have their way – arguing that we all have personal choice, why can’t we choose to enjoy a cold can of soft drink on a hot day, or tuck into a sugary breakfast cereal to kick start the morning?
Another argument against the tax is that it is a blunt policy tool that affects the entire population, but will probably affect the lower socio-economic groups more. The highest consumers of sugar are the young and the poor, because food and beverages with high sugar levels tend to be cheaper.
The government are holding back on any decision, saying they are waiting for ‘definitive evidence’ on the benefits of a tax – but is seems this evidence is unobtainable. There is evidence – but not definitive enough apparently. Why are they waiting – we all know a sugar tax is not going to cure the obesity crisis in New Zealand, but it is a step in the right direction, and probably the most effective approach we can take.