Yet again the food industry’s stooge Katherine Rich has managed to submit an opinion piece full of tasty sound bites but completely bereft of facts. She claimed that “sugar taxes will extract more money from citizens’ wallets for governments but do nothing to curb obesity. Katherine claims to want a fact-based discussion, so let’s unpack her lunchbox of claims.
Sugars are an important part of people’s diets
Tell that to our forefathers Katherine. In 1815 the average Englishman ate 4tsp of sugar per day, now we eat 29. If you strip out the natural sugars in milk, veges and fruit the average Kiwi still eats 19 tsp per day. How on earth did our poor ancestors cope without this “important part of their diet”? This is pseudoscience at its worst. Just because the body and brain burns glucose doesn’t mean that we are adapted to eating it in the pure form. Refined sugar overloads the body with energy so quickly it cannot use it, so it stores it as fat. After that shock your body gets a post sugar low, and so you crave more. Great for sales, bad for health.
Reports suggest most people consume [sugar] at moderate levels.
What do you call ‘moderate’ Katherine? The WHO recommends 6 tsp per day. The average Kiwi eats 3 times this.
Sucrose consumption in New Zealand has declined
Maybe, maybe not. This claim is based on survey data. We know that as people get fatter, they report eating less. Does that mean they are really eating less? No. Guess what, the whole country has been getting fatter, so maybe the ‘decline’ in sugar consumption is just survey embarrassment. Another data source – based on local production, exports and imports – shows no such trend.
Sugary fizzy drink sales have dropped
Not according to Statistics NZ – total spending has risen from $223m to 311m in 2013 – an increase of 40%. That total includes diet drinks, but it still doesn’t look like a drop. Give us the industry sales data Katherine and we might believe you.
Food is different to smoking
Yes, we have to eat food to live. But we don’t need any soft drinks, or other fake food – processed junk that is stripped of nutrients and stacked full of energy – for that matter. Drinking one can of sugary soft drink a day damages our health – it makes us heavier, more likely to be obese and develop diabetes, and it rots our teeth.
Physical activity is a part of the problem
Yes, but a small part. It takes an hour to walk off a 600ml bottle of soft drink (which contains 16tsp sugar, 2.5 times your daily recommended intake), or a 700ml sports drink. Who has that time?
The focus on soft drinks vs other fake foods
This is where Katherine starts to chase her tail. She sets up a straw man by berating activists for focusing solely on soft drinks (which they aren’t), then contradicts herself by complaining about proposals to tax other goods. Soft drinks are rightly the initial target because they are the most pernicious example of fake food. They contain nothing good, they just add to our daily energy (and occasionally caffeine) overdose without satiating our hunger. They would also be relatively simple to tax, as has been done in many places overseas. We could then move to a broader junk food tax based on the healthy star rating system currently being introduced.
Taxes only work if they are really high
Katherine uses tobacco tax rates to suggest soft drink prices could hit $17 a bottle. Now who is scaremongering? The proposal is for a 20% tax for starters – based on trials this would reduce consumption. A tax would also recognise the costs that soft drinks and other fake food put on our health system through diabetes and rotting teeth.
Taxes aren’t a silver bullet
We agree with Katherine here, we need to do more than tax, we also need to educate and regulate. That is why we suggested a package of changes including education, better labeling and banning junk food adverts to kids, which would prevent 19,000 years of life being lost at the hands of fake food. This package could all be funded by a tax on soft drinks. But here is the challenge for Katherine; if you don’t want a tax where is the money going to come from? Don’t expect the food industry to stump up, because the fact is that they don’t really want an educated public. They will only pay for ‘education’ when it includes their precious brands.
Taxes Hurt the Poor
Actually the poor respond to taxes by buying much less junk food, so they would get more health benefits. And the overall impact depends on what you spend the money on – a tax on junk food could be used to make fruit and veg cheaper through a voucher system. That is double the bang for your buck, and the poor would win hands down.
Individuals play the most important part
Katherine finishes off with sound bites dressed up as fact. Individual responsibility is a popular catch cry, but no self-respecting scientist in the obesity arena actually believes it is true. Has the obesity epidemic appeared because of a sudden failure of willpower in the last fifty years? It’s nonsense – what has changed is the availability of cheap, convenient fake food.
Food industry has a part to play
Oh the food industry is doing so much for us: downsizing portions, reformulating, funding education programmes. If the food industry were really worried about cash strapped Kiwis (as suggested in Katherine’s tax complaints) they would match that with price signals – make smaller portions and diet options cheaper.
Big Food lobbyists like Katherine Rich would have more credibility if they actually offered solutions to the problem. Instead they point to tokenist efforts made by the food industry, in full knowledge that they are making no difference whatsoever.
The ‘free market’ does not exist in a vacuum. Government has a role as the referee – to define the rules, and what is ‘fairplay’. Education, regulation and taxation are all part of those legitimate refereeing tools. It is clear that the rules of this game are askew when one in four Kiwis is at risk of diabetes. Katherine Rich’s comments are a little bit like a rugby player complaining about excessive use of the whistle while kicking the opposition in the head.