Coke impact rights

Does Freedom Come in a 600ml Bottle?

Geoff SimmonsFood, Health

It is great to hear New Zealand Initiative researcher Jenesa Jeram admit that ideology is partly behind their opposition to taxing junk food. As any sugar addict can attest, awareness is always the first step to change.

She goes on to argue that junk food taxes fail to meet the evidence test. And by her standards she is right. However, she fails to make the connection that the two issues are related; ideology colours how one looks at the evidence.

If the New Zealand Initiative doesn’t like the evidence around junk food taxes, they would be horrified by the lack of evidence behind the Government’s child obesity package. There is little if any evidence that this much trumpeted package of 22 changes will shift the needle on our national scales at all.

The evidence isn’t perfect, but by comparison, the key public health proposals of more informative labeling, curbing junk food advertising to kids and taxing junk food would actually help our kids have healthy lives.

Ideology means that the Initiative sets a high bar of evidence for proposals that clash with its agenda, but doesn’t apply the same level of evidence to its own proposals or those of the Government that align with its ideological predisposition. For example, interventions such as education have been shown to be ineffective when implemented alone. But who cares? They are much more ideologically aligned with the Government’s and NZ Initiative’s laissez faire philosophy.

Jeram claims that the impact of the tax in Mexico has been small. Curbing consumption by one sugar cube per day may not sound like much, but small amounts add up. Two-three cubes per day adds 1kg to a child’s waistline. Experts estimate that our daily calorie consumption is on average around 10% higher than it needs to be, and over time that excess has built up on our waistlines. That excess is the equivalent of about 16-17 sugar cubes per day.

That is our challenge – trimming the equivalent of 16 sugar cubes per day out of our daily diet. Given the scale of the challenge, the results of the Mexico study suggest that a modest (10%) tax on sugary drinks results in one cube down, 15 to go. I’d say that is a surprisingly good result.

Will that result in reduced obesity? It will take decades to find out, but I’d be willing to bet that the tax will have a greater impact on Mexico’s waistlines than our Government’s 22 point package will have on ours.

A decent tax, at say 20% would have a more than proportionately larger impact. No public health researcher has ever suggested that a tax on sugary drinks would be a silver bullet, but it would be a good start. More realistically a tax on all junk food is needed, along with the other changes mentioned above.

It is great to hear the Initiative have widened their scope beyond narrow economic analysis, and are starting to explore the wider science of obesity. The evidence shows that our environment and early experiences have a huge impact on our life chances of becoming obese and dying early. Shifting those structural factors is indeed a huge challenge.

The Initiative’s response to this huge challenge is to throw up their hands and put it all in the “too hard” basket. Apparently it’s better that a large chunk of the current generation gets fat and dies than implement changes that threaten our “freedom”. Forget the impact on our health system and tax-take from an epidemic of diabetes, our “freedom” is at stake!

But can freedom really be found at the bottom of a 600ml plastic bottle wrapped in bright packaging?

In my eyes, the Initiative’s idea of freedom is not personal freedom for all New Zealanders at all; it is actually the freedom of businesses and industry to garner wealth at the expense of people’s well-being. In New Zealand, freedom means growing up healthily, so that you have a lifetime of opportunities. Freedom means growing up with a body that isn’t programmed to crave junk food, so you can make real choices. Freedom means an environment that helps you make healthy choices, rather than being bombarded with cheap, convenient and well-marketed junk food. That is a concept of freedom that’s light years from that cherished by the NZ Initiative.

In that context a tax on soft drink and other junk food hardly robs children or anyone of their freedom, anymore than a tax on fags does. Rather, such a corrective tax simply requires the pushers of junk food bear some of the burden that they place on society through promulgating rotten teeth, diabetes and numerous other issues. It’s analogous to requiring polluters to pay for cleaning on the environmental degradation they create.


Does Freedom Come in a 600ml Bottle? was last modified: September 7th, 2016 by Geoff Simmons
About the Author

Geoff Simmons

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Geoff Simmons is an economist working for the Morgan Foundation. Geoff has an Honours degree from Auckland University and over ten years experience working for NZ Treasury and as a manager in the UK civil service. Geoff has co-authored three books alongside Gareth.