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A tax we can be sweet with

Niki Bezzant calls for government action on taxing sugar-sweetened beverages. Again.

It’ll be two years in August since I went to Wellington and presented a 10,000- signature petition at Parliament for a tax on sugary drinks.

What’s happened in that time?

A lot. And also: not a lot.

We had a change of government, for one thing. You might have thought that would be a good thing. The previous government dismissed a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs) out of hand. Not on our watch, they said. That’s too nanny state.

This was despite the recommendations of experts in public health, obesity, diabetes and dental health. It was despite the recommendations of the Prime Minister’s chief science advisor at the time. It was despite the recommendation of the World Health Organization, and despite the implementation of a tax by many countries and states around the world, including the UK and Mexico.

Our new government, though, has proved no different from the old one on this. They’re ignoring the experts and the evidence, too.

Even as the evidence for the effectiveness of SSB taxes has grown, and public support for a tax has grown along with it, the Health Minister and Prime Minister have said they have ruled out a tax on SSBs here.

What’s going on here?

Health Minister David Clark has said he prefers to work with the food industry to reduce the sugar content in our food supply. He also wants to work with them to improve labelling on foods and drinks.

That’s a fox-in-charge-of-the-henhouse approach, surely? Isn’t that the kind of strategy that’s got us to the crisis point we are at now?

Treating obesity, diabetes and related preventable diseases is a huge financial burden on the health system. Additionally, we’re spending $20 million a year putting young kids under general anaesthetic to remove rotten teeth. These problems are getting steadily worse.

And recently published research has revealed that consumption of sugary drinks is actually increasing; we’re drinking less fizzy, but more sports drinks, energy drinks and juice.

We could be doing so much better. A study published earlier this year showed consumption of sugary drinks dropped 52 per cent among low-income residents of the US city of Berkeley in the three years after an excise tax on sugar-sweetened beverages was enacted in early 2015.

The sugary drinks industry likes to point out that studies haven’t shown health improvements from SSB taxes. Therefore, they say, they’re not worth doing.

That is – pun intended – a smokescreen. When taxes on cigarettes were introduced, it took years for smoking rates to go down. And it took years more for health impacts to be seen.

That did not mean taxing cigarettes was a bad idea. It’ll take a while to establish the health effects of SSB taxes.

But in the meantime – when the experts are calling for it and the public want it – what have we got to lose? It’s very difficult to see the downside here, even for the sugary drinks industry, who are clever and innovative and might just need a nudge to come up with more sugar-free options. They’re not going to let a little tax slow them down.

Prime Minister Ardern: let’s just be bold and get on and do it.

There’s a new petition for a tax on sugar-sweetened drinks, with money raised to go towards nutrition education. To sign, go to parliament.nz/en/pb/ petitions and search for ‘beverage’.

Article sources and references

Date modified: June 13 2019
First published: Jul 2019

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