Govt sour on fizzy drink tax

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Putting a tax on sugary drinks would decrease childhood obesity and improve oral health.
Putting a tax on sugary drinks would decrease childhood obesity and improve oral health.

Many Kiwi kids drink more than their fair share of sugary drinks, and with high sugar intake linked to obesity, type 2 diabetes and dental problems, it's little wonder public health advocates are worried.

Sugary drinks are low in nutrients with less satisfying energy than solid foods resulting in increased consumption, according to a February article by health innovation experts in the New Zealand Medical Journal.

The article found children aged 5-14 years old obtained nearly a quarter of their daily sugar intake from such beverages.

The New Zealand Beverage Guidance Panel, made up of public health experts, has long advocated taxing and restricting the sale of sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs), but now it's taking its battle directly to Parliament.

The panel has just released a five-page policy brief with 20 recommendations to government, schools, communities, the beverage industry, health professionals, and non-government organisations.

Panel founder Dr Gerhard Sundborn says its top three recommendations would be a 20 per cent excise tax to reduce consumption among poorer households, regulating sales within schools and hospitals, and educating families and communities about problems associated with high sugar intake.

The brief is finding favour with the Greens and the Maori Party - who publicly endorsed it, with Associate Health Minister Tariana Turia saying the party had approached the Government about introducing an excise tax on sugar-sweetened beverages.

However, Health Minister Tony Ryall has repeatedly made it clear he believes a tax won't work and the Government has no intention of enforcing one.

Dr Sundborn is determined not to give up and says it's only a matter of time before the Government is forced to listen.

The problem with sugar

A wide range of drinks fall under the banner of sugar-sweetened beverages, including energy drinks, carbonated "fizzy" drinks, flavoured milk, juice, flavoured water, cordials and sport drinks.

For many Kiwi families, such drinks are part of their daily diet and for some that's coupled with unhealthy food choices laden with sugar and calories.

The figures tell an alarming tale - Kiwis consume between 1.5 and five times more sugar than recommended by the American Heart Association, which says that to limit weight gain and reduce the risk of heart disease, men should stick to nine teaspoons a day of added sugar, women six, and children three.

Almost a third of New Zealand children aged between 2 and 14 are overweight or obese, according to the Ministry of Health's report The Health of New Zealand Children 2011/12.

There's no one reason for the growing problem, and social issues such as poverty, housing conditions, food security, and the cost of healthy food are contributing factors.

The report found overweight and obese children generally came from the most deprived neighbourhoods, with obesity rates highest in Maori children at 17 per cent, and Pasika children at 23 per cent.

Health experts fear sugar-sweetened beverages are playing a part in the high rates.

A recent price comparison of Homebrand milk and cola revealed a 1L bottle of milk cost $2.35, while a 1.25L bottle of cola cost 97 cents.

Dr Sundborn says sugary drinks need to be treated as a priority problem for reducing childhood obesity and oral health concerns. He has previously quoted a Ministry of Health report into hospital admissions which found 5000 children a year under the age of 7 needed a general anaesthetic to get rotten teeth removed at a cost of about $20 million.

What schools say

In 2008, the Labour Government introduced healthy food and beverage guidelines for schools, removing the sale of fizzy drinks and fatty foods.

However, in 2009 the National Government revoked the guidelines, meaning school canteens once more had a choice of what to sell.

Critics claim this was a backwards step towards reducing childhood obesity.

Primary school principals say that while sugar-sweetened beverages are a problem, schools are doing everything in their power to encourage healthy diets.

Principals' Federation president Phil Harding says most schools continued to provide healthy food and drink options after the guidelines were removed. "I don't think there'd be a principal in the country who'd sit there and say Coca Cola, with God knows how many spoonfuls of sugar, is the healthy option for our kids.

The panel's brief recommends schools implement healthy food and beverage guidelines, strengthen education about sugar-sweetened beverages, and ensure sufficient quality water fountains are readily available.

Mr Harding says those are sensible recommendations.

However, he says schools are already up with the play, with every school providing water fountains, and many allowing students to drink bottled water during class.

It's not at school where kids drink the beverages, he says, it's at home with family, or out with friends.

The beverage industry

The NZMJ article reported data on national sales of soft drinks are commercially sensitive and difficult to access. Previous reports showed carbonated drinks accounted for 1.8 per cent of average household food expenditure in New Zealand.

"Given there are 1.55 million households (2013 census data), total national expenditure on carbonated drinks is in the region of $257 million each year," the article stated.

Beverage industry bodies are not convinced a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages would reduce consumption.

Coca Cola New Zealand's general manager Paul Fitzgerald told the New Zealand Herald in April, a 20 per cent tax would fall more heavily on the smaller drinks range, making larger-size bottles more attractive to supermarket shoppers.

A tax would be regressive and fall more heavily on low income consumers, leading to shifts to cheaper house brands or powdered mixes, with the potential to hurt the business of dairies, who already struggle to compete with supermarkets where 2L Coke bottles can cost as little as $2, he said.

The New Zealand Juice and Beverage Association also opposes a tax.

In a statement, the association said obesity and its related health issues was by any measure complex and had myriad causes intrinsic to which were the decisions made by individual consumers.

"A single product 'sin' tax as proposed will not only fail in the long term it will unduly penalise those consumers who can enjoy an SSB without detriment to their health."

Both Coca Cola and the association said they were working to find ways of reducing added sugar to their products.

The association said the beverage industry would continue to offer a range of smaller portion sizes, find safe sugar substitutes and offer low or no sugar alternatives.

Political pressure

The panel's recommendation for a 20 per cent excise tax on sugar-sweetened beverages is hitting a stumbling block with government, but Dr Sundborn is convinced it's the way forward.

Mexico has introduced a 10 per cent tax on sugar-sweetened beverages which has so far resulted in an 8 per cent drop in consumption, he says.Money collected from a tax here could be used to fund health promotion initiatives.

The panel's brief, launched on June 19, will now be presented to various organisations to consider supporting in principle, or fully endorsing it.

Health Minister Tony Ryall says the Government sees its role as providing information and support for individuals and families regarding healthy eating, and has no intention to introduce more restrictive measures such as sugar taxes, or stricter regulation of advertising.

"A sugar tax won't work and will make everyone pay in order to influence the behaviour of some."

The Government's new $40 million anti-obesity initiative, Healthy Families NZ, is a more "sophisticated and evidence-based" way of addressing obesity and other underlying causes of poor health, he says. It also invests around $60 million on programmes each year, including Kiwisport in schools, green prescriptions, and fruit in schools, to encourage healthy eating and exercise for young Kiwis. APNZ

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