With all of the election brouhaha and the country’s representatives lobbying for votes, it’s times like these when we forget who’s really driving the agenda.
“When we’re discussing things like a sugar tax, the obesity epidemic, supermarket competition or building costs, we fail to look at international benchmarks, which are supposed to steer us to where we should go,” Monopoly Watch’s Tex Edwards told me.
“But lobbyists seem to continually fracture the Government’s instinct to do international benchmarking.”
How do we compare internationally? The food environment is deeply political, and Aotearoa’s self-regulated and voluntary mechanisms continue to come out on top. It’s an illustration of successful lobbying in action.
The food and beverage industry has lobbied hard to keep our current voluntary framework in place, promising since 2018 to reformulate packaged foods, increase the uptake of the Health Star Rating system, reduce marketing of ultra-processed food to children and educate the masses.
So, how are we faring?
In the context of protecting vulnerable groups, we have the Advertising Standards Authority’s (ASA) Children and Young People’s Advertising Code. Changes are in the works to possibly include a new code specific to food.
Benefits of self-regulation include flexibility and faster turnaround rates, compared to clogging up the courts.
The downside: The ASA is voluntary, and doesn’t cover food labelling, packaging, shelf space positioning or sponsorship. Ronald McDonald House? No jurisdiction. Coca-Cola Christmas in the Park? No jurisdiction. Fast food-backed player-of-the-day promotions? No jurisdiction (unless there’s something problematic on certificates or signage, for example).
In contrast, the Canadian province of Quebec introduced a ban on children’s advertising in 1980. More than 30 countries have laws banning advertising to kids.
A 2018 study found countries with food marketing laws saw a decline in ultra-processed food consumption, whereas consumption increased in countries where industry set the rules. The World Health Organisation called for national action in 2006.
Labelling - voluntary
Moving on to labelling. There’s the Health Star Rating (HSR) system, which is to provide consumers with information detailing the ‘healthiness’ of a product. In 2019, just 21 per cent of packaged food products featured the rating.
Companies have just a few months to get their act together to reach a 50 per cent target. Even if companies come to the 70 per cent party by 2025, that will leave 30 per cent of products behind.
In 2021, an Australian study looked at sugar in HSR products. It should be noted the voluntary nature of the system arguably means companies are incentivised to use the system for their healther products.
Nevertheless, the study found companies had increased the number of products using the HSR system, but the amount of sugar either increased or stayed the same.
A 2017 study in New Zealand showed sodium content of HSR products decreased by 5 per cent. The authors concluded the system was driving healthier reformulation of some products. Again, you’ve got the whole ‘pick and choose what to label’ problem.
National Party health spokesperson Dr Shane Reti told political debate audiences in Auckland last month he’s potentially keen on ditching the HSR system altogether. It’s not the labelling that’s the issue, it’s the food industry’s inability to use it. Making it mandatory could change the name of the game.
Internationally, Chile introduced warning labels in 2016, and similar rules can be seen in Brazil, Ecuador, Peru, Mexico, Uruguay, Iran, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Singapore and Colombia.
What sugar tax?
Food and Beverage Council chief executive Raewyn Bleakely told me industry-led data by Circana showed in terms of four-year growth, total calories in pre-packed groceries have increased 5.7 per cent, while sugar has increased 4.7 per cent.
The spin is that while sugar consumption is growing, it’s at a 19 per cent slower rate than total food.
Regardless, the data lost me at ‘industry-led’.
The reasoning, of course, means that if companies are committed to reformulating products, there’s surely no need for a sugar tax or junk food levy.
Ministry for Primary Industries food safety deputy director-general Vincent Arbuckle told me a business unit is working with Australian counterparts to explore policy options to limit sugar in sweetened beverages.
But Health Minister Dr Ayesha Varrell confirmed the Labour Government has no intention of doing so. Regulations to reduce sugar could theoretically reduce the need for a sugar tax. It’s been done in the UK for sodium - and yet, they too have a sugar tax.
What’s the international benchmark? Some 54 countries have a sugar tax. An umbrella review this year analysed research on sugar taxes, consumption and dental health between 2000 and 2021. It found a 20 per cent tax would reduce sugar intake by 20 per cent in high-income countries. Tooth decay among children reduced by almost 3 per cent.
Food industry groups say there’s no evidence a sugar tax would reduce obesity. But is this a filibuster argument?
An Australian study in 2018 found a sugar tax would result in four million fewer fillings and save the country A$670 million, for example.
With the Labour Party’s election promise to provide free dental care for those under the age of 30 cited as costing $390m over four years - and burning out the country’s dentists in the process - surely a sugar tax would tackle the issue at the source?
Lobbying - nothing to see here, folks
I can’t decide whether politicians’ lack of conviction over long-term strategy is because of lobbying or because they’re simply too busy to do their homework.
Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index ranked us second-equal with Finland in 2022, yet lobbying remains unregulated - despite Labour’s troubles involving Michael Wood and Stuart Nash this year.
The result? Another voluntary code. A spokesperson for Prime Minister Chris Hipkins said this Government had gone further than any other to make lobbying more transparent. The Green Party did, actually, with its failed Lobbying Disclosure Bill in 2012.
“Lobbying has its place and is useful as a mechanism when developing policy. But the Government does think the balance needs to shift.”
Advice on regulating lobbying is expected back in 2024.
“For any progress to stick, however, it needs National and Act to take it seriously,” Hipkins spokesperson said.
With no regulation, it means no one’s tracking the situation, either. Essentially, we don’t know what we don’t know. In the meantime, the country’s preference to favour industry and voluntary measures and a failure to implement interventions seen in most OECD countries sends a clear message:
“Something’s rotten in the state of Denmark.”
Wellington-based freelancer Sasha Borissenko did a law degree at Otago University followed by a master’s (hons) in journalism at Massey University.