Niki Bezzant: Sugar tax a start to tackling obesity

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Perhaps we need lots of healthy drinks choices - and a tiny corner of the shelf where the expensive and unpopular sugary drinks live. Photo / Natalie Slade
Perhaps we need lots of healthy drinks choices - and a tiny corner of the shelf where the expensive and unpopular sugary drinks live. Photo / Natalie Slade

Can you imagine a world without sugary drinks? That's the goal for one motivated group of people.

Last week I attended the Fizz symposium. Fizz is a group of health professionals dedicated to a sugary drinks-free Aotearoa.

The attendees were a diverse group including doctors, researchers, dentists, nutritionists. There were also, encouragingly, representatives of the beverage industry.

I think everyone in the room agreed there is a great need for engagement from everyone, including industry, in addressing the problems of obesity, diabetes and dental decay.

I think we also all agreed there is no one solution.

Although much of the day's discussion focused on a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages (SSB) - including my own presentation on the ongoing SSB tax petition - we all know this is not a silver bullet solution.

A tax on its own won't cure obesity.

That doesn't mean, though, that it is not worth doing. I'm more convinced than ever that a tax has to be part of the solution.

Expert after expert came at the topic from different angles.

Economist Geoff Simmons neatly dismantled the arguments put forward by opponents of a tax, including the one that it is regressive - it hurts the poorest people in society - by pointing out that obesity and diabetes are highly regressive, too, disproportionately affecting the most deprived.

He also made the excellent point that raising money via a tax is just the start. We need to spend that money wisely and it can be spent for good.

In the petition we are calling for the money raised from a tax to be spent on healthy eating education, a key part of the obesity puzzle.

Coming at it from a legal angle, Professor Michael Littlewood from Auckland University took a pragmatic approach.

He admitted knowing nothing about health.

But, he said, if the goal is to reduce consumption of sugary drinks, a tax - specifically imposed on a per unit basis, say $1 per litre - will achieve that.

He addressed the "nanny state" cry by looking at the criteria for nanny state legislation: how harmful is the product to the person using it and what is the burden on other taxpayers?

The harm of sugary drinks is well-established.

And the burden is huge. It costs more than $20 million a year just to remove decayed teeth from young children. The cost from obesity and diabetes is over a billion dollars and climbing.

Those who are opposed to nanny state, said Littlewood, should consider that we tend not to mind nanny-state laws in many other circumstances. He listed some: motorcycle helmets; seatbelts; dangerous drugs; liquor and tobacco.

I'm not sure New Zealand will ever be SSB-free. They've done it in Tokelau, but that is a highly controlled environment: small islands with one boat in and out for people and soft drinks alike.

Perhaps an achievable vision for us is an Aotearoa with lots of healthy drinks choices - and also a tiny corner of the shelf where the expensive and unpopular SSBs live.

• To sign the petition for a tax on sugary drinks, go to change.org and search "sugar"

- Herald on Sunday

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