Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman: Sugar obesity link plain for all but Govt to see

Health Minister Jonathan Coleman claims there is no evidence a sugar tax would work. Illustration / Peter Bromhead
Health Minister Jonathan Coleman claims there is no evidence a sugar tax would work. Illustration / Peter Bromhead

What more evidence does the Government need before it will accept the link between sugar and obesity? A locked roomful of children pigging away on Coke and sugar cubes until they pop and splatter?

The Prime Minister's chief scientific adviser, Sir Peter Gluckman, supports a sugar tax. A few days ago, more than 70 medical experts in the field backed this up with an open letter to the Cabinet.

Then came a World Health Organisation call for action, warning of a worldwide four-fold increase in diabetes cases over the past 25 years. It blamed the diabetes epidemic on growing consumption of food and beverages high in sugar.

This coincided with a research paper from Imperial College claiming a worldwide epidemic of severe obesity, with one in 10 men and one in seven women obese.

Yet all we get in New Zealand is vacillation. In response to the open letter from the experts who work the front line, Health Minister Jonathan Coleman claims there is no evidence a sugar tax would work.

He said he was waiting for the results of two international studies due out at the end of 2017.

It was a lurch back to the early days of the Key Government in 2009, when to prove its macho, anti-nanny state credentials, it summarily scrapped the previous government's directive that school canteens sell only healthy food and beverages.

This refusal to confront the obesity-diabetes epidemic is like a replay of the global warming crisis fiasco.

For years, politicians here and overseas shrugged off the increasingly strident warnings of the informed scientific community, preferring instead to turn off their brains and listen to the mavericks and the self-interested commercial interests, who claimed it was all greenie scare-mongering.

It's as though Dr Coleman has stumbled across a copy of the controversial book Maori Health, which hit the headlines briefly 10 years ago calling for a magic "poly pill" to cure obese Maori of their ills.

Co-authored by the South Auckland Kotahitangi Community Trust's chairman, Peter Caccioppoli, and the trust's GP, Rhys Cullen, it argued "the answer to diabetes is not diet and exercise but medication".

They argued the Crown's "health Nazis" opposed activities like smoking and eating fatty foods simply because Maori enjoyed them. Instead of expecting Maori to stop smoking or start dieting, the Government should hand out pills to prevent illnesses like diabetes and heart disease.

Dr Cullen's campaign for a cure-all pill came to a sudden halt soon after, when he was found guilty of professional misconduct and banned from practising for obtaining large quantities of pseudoephedrine tablets, the main precursor for the Class A drug methamphetamine, for illegal purposes. His claim it was for research purposes was not believed.

So while Dr Coleman stands around waiting for such an elixir of good health, or for further evidence that a sugar tax will help make New Zealanders healthier, the sugar merchants and their middlemen continue to merrily overdose our drinks, our cereals, our sauces and 101 other commodities we wouldn't suspect, with their unhealthy product.

In their open letter, the experts underlined the extent of the crisis. One in nine Kiwi kids and almost one in three adults are obese. The child rate is fourth highest in the world. Every year, 5000 children under the age of 8 need general anaesthetic operations to remove rotten teeth.

All up, 35,000 children and 275,000 adults have rotten teeth extracted each year. They could have added that more than 300,000 New Zealanders suffer from diabetes.

Experts like Boyd Swinburn, Auckland University professor of population nutrition and global health, have been warning for years that obesity has overtaken smoking "as the biggest contributor to the burden of disease".

The industry argues a tax on sugar will not reduce consumption. But that is what was argued about tobacco and alcohol, and the critics were proved wrong.

Dr Gluckman chaired the recent WHO Commission on Ending Child Obesity which supports a tax of sugar-laced drinks as its No 2 recommendation. Dr Coleman is expected to ceremonially endorse this report when he joins other world health ministers in Geneva this month.

He should then come home and honour his signature.

Debate on this article is now closed.

- NZ Herald

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Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman's first news story was for Auckland University student paper Outspoke, exposing an SIS spy on campus during the heady days of the Vietnam War. It resulted in a Commission of Inquiry and an award for student journalist of the year. A stint editing the Labour Party's start-up Auckland newspaper NZ Statesman followed. Rudman decided journalism was the career for him, but the NZ Herald and Auckland Star thought otherwise when he came job-hunting. After a year on the "hippy trail" overland to London, he spent four years on Fleet St with various British provincial papers. He then joined the Auckland Star, winning the Dulux Journalist of the Year award for coverage of the 1976 Dawn Raids against Polynesian overstayers. He has also worked on the NZ Listener, Auckland Sun, and since 1996, for the NZ Herald as feature writer and columnist. He has a BA in History and Politics.

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