Minister Coleman sings from Big Food song sheet

Geoff SimmonsHealth

Over the weekend, 70 medical specialists called on the Government to introduce a sugar tax. The Minister’s response was straight from the Big Food lobby song sheet – claiming there is no evidence to support such a tax. The academics responded pointing out that junk food taxes are the best tool we have to combat child obesity – along with better food labeling, keeping junk food out of schools and hospitals and banning junk food advertising to children.

The excuses are starting to wear thin. If the Minister, Big Food and their think tank lackies seriously believe that junk food taxes are not the answer and education is, they need to put forward some evidence-based ideas that will actually make a difference to child obesity. Put up or shut up.

Junk Food Taxes Work

Despite the claims of the Health Minister, the Big Food lobby, libertarian Taxpayers Union and now the corporate-funded NZ Initative, junk food taxes do work. In fact, as long as the tax is well designed it is hard to find a policy that works better.

Science is rarely if ever 100% conclusive. It is always possible to find some gaps in the data if you want to make an excuse to do nothing, and it has been interesting to watch how the excuses have shifted over time. Initially there was a debate about whether taxes reduced how much junk food is eaten and drunk. When it became clear that taxes do reduce consumption, the argument switched – now we have to wait for evidence that junk food taxes reduce obesity. We will look at the stupidity of this argument in more detail tomorrow.

It is a shame the Health Minister didn’t put the same level of scrutiny into his plan for child obesity released last year. Of the 22 initiatives he served up, the vast majority were not new, and none are supported by evidence showing that they will actually reduce childhood obesity. It is just more of the same – looking like he is taking action without actually doing anything. Meanwhile obesity rises.

Education Education Education

As we have pointed out previously, education on healthy eating is dwarfed by junk food advertising. Despite all the rhetoric that education is the answer, the truth is that the Food industry likes to keep us all confused so we will continue to eat their fake food.

The one positive move the Government has made is introducing the healthy star label system. However, the system remains voluntary, and without sufficient education around it – such as what stars constitute a ‘treat’ and how often such ‘treats’ should be consumed – it is meaningless to the general public.

Again there is a good reason Big Food doesn’t want to see this sort of education – because it would hit their profits. The official Ministry of Health guideline is one serving of a ‘treat’ food per week, but nobody is in a hurry to tell parents that. A recent Australian study shows that a ‘treat’ food is definitely anything with 2 stars or less, and could extend as far as foods with 3.5 stars. The fact is that the majority of processed food simply isn’t great for us (in fact the more processed the worse it is) – again the food industry doesn’t want us to know that.

If the Health Minister, Food industry and the NZ Initiative really think that education is the answer then they need to put forward evidence-based ideas that will actually make a difference. What they will find if they bother to do the research is that proper education that actually makes a difference is expensive and only works for kids. Assuming we are prepared to watch whole generations die from diabetes because it is too late to educate them, the question then arises: where do they plan to get the money for education from?

How could we fund proper education?

Maybe Big Food could put their money where their mouth is and fund some education. No doubt if they do they will want their brands all over it, and they will want that education to perpetuate their campaign of misinformation. If Big Food thinks videos like this actually serve the public good they are sadly mistaken.

So how could we fund some real education, untainted by the food industry? A soft drink tax would yield about $30-40m, more than enough to roll out an evidence-based nutrition and physical education programme in schools. But we know that the Health Minister and other think tanks don’t like that idea. Trouble is that they have offered up no other ideas to solve the problem. They will no doubt look to general taxation to pick up the bill, but there are already huge pressures on the Treasury. Besides, why should the taxpayer pick up the bill for a problem that Big Food has created and profited from? Here is one alternative – place a levy is placed on every junk food advertisement (which by the way is two out of 3 adverts). These are the sorts of ideas that opponents to junk food taxation need to explore if they are to be credible.

The fact is that their call for education is nothing but an empty platitude. It contains a certain ring of truthiness, but without some substance about how it would be delivered and funded, it doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. While we can understand that sort of approach from a food industry desperate to protect their bottom line, we should expect the Health Minister and think tanks to at least back up their hollow claims.

While well-funded education could help shift the needle for future generations, sadly it is unlikely to be enough to combat the looming diabetes epidemic. Evidence suggests that education alone doesn’t make a difference for adults – taxation does. Given we are staring down the barrel of one in three adults having diabetes, urgent action is needed. But then Big Food, the Health Minister, Taxpayers Union and NZ Initiative would no doubt prefer us to face the tsunami of diabetes and the dialysis, amputations, heart attacks and blindness it will bring instead. Anything to maintain the sanctity of personal choice and avoid another dollar of taxes.

Minister Coleman sings from Big Food song sheet was last modified: June 21st, 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.