Tony Falkenstein: Sugar tax best way to fight obesity

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New Zealand is the third-fattest country in the world. Photo / Thinkstock
New Zealand is the third-fattest country in the world. Photo / Thinkstock

Remember the Marlboro man who rode across billboards, cigarette hanging from his lips? Remember Benson & Hedges, which sponsored the tennis, Rothmans which sponsored the cricket? - all brands promoting healthy living when the exact opposite was the truth.

That mantle of misleading advertising has now been taken over by the food and beverage industry, which promotes its fat- and sugar-laced products as the key to healthy living.

It took a tax to dramatically slow smoking addiction; a tax on sugar and fat products would do the same.

The fact is that we are getting more and more obese.

New Zealand is now the third-fattest nation in the world (OECD obesity statistics, June 2011) and our obesity is the cause of the growing Diabetes 2 epidemic which is becoming the number one cause of preventable death.

More than half of all New Zealanders are overweight or obese, and obesity claims the lives of more than 1000 people each year in this country - twice the number killed in traffic accidents.

Thirty years ago nobody would have imagined that cigarette advertising would be banned, workplaces would be smoke free, and that cigarettes would attract an excise tax of 24c a cigarette.

Yet the effect of a tobacco tax led to immediate and permanent dramatic falls in cigarettes sold. Since 1991 the price of cigarettes has doubled, and the volume sold is now a third of 1991 sales (Ministry of Health-AC Nielsen data).

We now have two newer addictions - sugar and fat. These are the major cause of Diabetes 2, which is responsible for the biggest percentage increase in our health budget.

Introducing a tax on them will not only reduce these addictions, but provide funds to handle the increasing cost of them.

The simplest tax to administer is an excise tax on sugar and its related products.

Sugar is an addiction, so a gentle weaning off the addiction will make it more manageable for consumers as well as giving manufacturers time to adjust the composition of their products.

The excise tax I propose would be 20 per cent on all products with more than 10 per cent sugar content. Each year the sugar content bar would reduce by 1 per cent , so that in seven years the 20 per cent tax would apply to all products with more than 4 per cent sugar,which is considered an acceptable level.

Thus, like tobacco, this is not a ban on sugar products, it just means a consumer will pay a higher price for high-content sugar products, and the most likely result will be that consumers and manufacturers will adjust to the tax-free product as the norm.

In a recent report, Otago University researchers Penny Field and Robin Gauld argued that food industry groups have the "upper hand" in policy-making dealing with obesity.

They stated that by letting industry groups dominate the process, the Government was not acting in the public's best interest in reducing the long-term cost of obesity.

Of course the Food Industry Group representative, Katherine Rich, retorted that "self-regulation was better suited to New Zealand" - it is suggested that she meant "better suited to the food industry".

The food and beverage industry, like the tobacco industry before it, can afford to outgun health spending for its own benefit. The country cannot afford the cost of diabetes, and a sugar tax will force the industry to adopt better standards, and consumers to reduce their addiction.

Last month, Denmark, which has one of the lowest obesity rates (one-third of the New Zealand rate) introduced the world's first fat tax, levied on foods, including butter and bacon, that contain more than 2.3 per cent saturated fat.

So, why not a fat tax here?

That will happen, as we assess the results of the Danish tax, but let's start with the simple one - a sugar tax.

SWEETEST TAX OF ALL:

YearSugar contentTax
2013 10 per cent +20 per cent
20149 per cent +20 per cent
2015 8 per cent +20 per cent
2016 7 per cent +20 per cent
2017 6 per cent +20 per cent
2018 5 per cent +20 per cent
2019 4 per cent +20 per cent

- Tony Falkenstein, ONZM, is chief executive of Just Water International.

- NZ Herald

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