Coke impact rights

Does Freedom Come in a 600ml Bottle?

Geoff SimmonsFood, Health14 Comments

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.

14 Comments on “Does Freedom Come in a 600ml Bottle?”

  1. Let me get the logic of the last paragraph right:

    Seller of nail file: If you use this nail file to excess it will cause physical harm.
    Buyer: Okay… (proceeds to grind fingers to the bone, requiring state funded medical treatment).
    Morgan Foundation: Ha! Evidence of an externality that Short Nail Pushers impose on the public!

    Okay then.

    1. I read the last paragraph as a paraphrasing of the allegedly-appealing-to-libertarians argument that Alessandro Demaio was recently making: that by selling products that DO cause large amounts of harm and costs to the public in the long term very cheaply, we are subsidising the immediate cost of the product and externalising the costs to the public, long-term. So a tax at the point of purchase would more fairly account for the actual costs.

    2. Even water will kill you if you have too much of it.
      That’s why we fence swimming pools; so kids don’t drown.

        1. Sugar industry apologists use the water analogy to argue for personal responsibility – I am pointing out that we do regulate children’s freedom to access water, and there is a further analogy in that swimming pools are known to be more dangerous to children than natural bodies of water because instincts are less protective.

    3. Your attempting to equate the addictiveness of sugar with filing one’s nails, makes me think you work for the sugar industry, with the same pathetic quality of argument.

  2. Robyn Toomath’s ‘Fat Science’ covers this argument very well. Sadly after lobbying for this type of change for the past decade, with hard evidence as a nutritionist to back her argument, she came up against wall after wall, and has given up. Why? Because our government is in bed with all the main players when it comes to junk food. How is it allowed for fast food giant McDonald’s to support kids football and the Olympics to name just a few sponsorships? Show me the government who has the balls to divorce themselves from fast food corporate sponsorship, and then we’ll see a change.

    20% tax on sugar, no GST on fruit and vege. Simple

  3. Hi Geoff
    Spot on about sugar and it’s effects

    – Broken record –
    we need to get away from the “obesity” nonsense
    When the minimum mortality rate is at a BMI of 30!

    We need to stop aiming for a BMI of 22

    The current nonsensical numbers effectively distract us from the real problem which is SUGAR!!!!

  4. Bravo and very well said Geoff. I wonder if Warren Buffet/Berkshire Hathaway can be convinced to divest his/their substantial shareholding from Coke? Buffet did just this with his previous massive tobacco investments when he became convinced about the harm caused by tobacco. We just need to convince him about the harm caused by SSBs …

  5. The national government regularly uses the excuse “there’s no silver bullet” to justify their inaction on a number of issues like obesity and global warming or the on-going pollution of our waterways and wider environment…housing and childhood poverty. What they mean is they refuse to take progressive series of actions that will cumulatively change the poor outcomes they preside over. The series of actions they should take are the bandoliers of silver bullets they should be using to effect change. But no that would impact on their ideological “freedom” – the freedom take profit by exploiting society. What’s the silver bullet for the vampires of society like John Key and the New Zealand Initiative…make sure you vote in the election!

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