We'll see none of the regulation that has worked well overseas if big business feeds our health agenda.

Minister of Health Jonathan Coleman is extraordinarily pleased with himself on many fronts, but the one that causes him the largest, most gormless grin is his claim that the Government has "taken health off the front pages".

It is true, but only because trying to argue the facts - even with empirical evidence - against Dr Coleman and Tony Ryall, his predecessor, is, and was, a pointless exercise. They're corporate drones, on a mission to slash vote health, with big business programming their dashboards.

That sounds a bit harsh but I submit as evidence the interview Dr Coleman gave this past Sunday on TVNZ's Q+A programme.

The minister came on to talk about this Government's $40 million investment, over four years, in the Healthy Families initiative; a good, community-based programme that has done well overseas.


The minister was happy to expound upon Healthy Families. But without proper regulation to back up initiatives such as these, our battle against obesity is doomed to failure.

"What we've got to do actually is start taking action," beamed Dr Coleman. One could ask why it's taken six years to get to the starting point, but the bigger problem is this minister insists (or hopes) that obesity will be vanquished without the use of any legislation that would upset the powerful food lobby.

For a start, a sugar tax is out. Dr Coleman says there's no evidence it works.

That's wrong.

It's well documented that countries serious about obesity have embraced sugar taxes, and those taxes have reaped rewards (and raised revenue). In Mexico, in just one year, the population of the world's biggest soft drink consumers bought 12 per cent less fizzy. It also made the Mexican Government more than US$1 billion ($1.49 billion) in tax to put towards further obesity work.

Nauru, Fiji, Samoa, French Polynesia, parts of the US, France, Finland and Norway, Hungary and Denmark have instituted taxes on sugar-sweetened beverages. Credit Suisse, hardly a bastion of lefty-liberalism, called for a tax on sugar in 2013, warning sugar was about to experience its "tobacco moment".

And Forbes, a pro-markets publication, just this week reported a study from the journal Circulation that looked at data from dietary surveys across 51 countries that found a staggering number of deaths could be attributed directly to sugary drinks each year - some 133,000 from diabetes, 45,000 from heart disease and almost 6500 from cancer.

"There are no health benefits from sugar-sweetened beverages, and the potential impact of reducing consumption is saving tens of thousands of deaths each year," said study author Dariush Mozaffarian.


What else could he be wrong about? Well, there's also the fast food industry's enthusiasm for its self-created voluntary standards.

According to the World Health Organisation, food interests across the globe are forcing governments to allow them to regulate themselves. The "rules" they come up with are weak, with little independent scientific backing - the same tactic that industries like tobacco used for years.

In New Zealand, the advertising standards Dr Coleman heartily supported focus narrowly on advertising - they don't regulate "under the line" marketing strategies such as giveaways, social media apps, games and other vehicles that are far more prevalent.

Dr Coleman made several other claims that don't pass the believability test. He said Tony Ryall reversed the removal of "junk" foods in schools because "it didn't work" - a claim that has no evidence at all. That "exercise and education" are better than "a fixation with advertising and sugar taxes". Again, not correct. A study by Harvard and University of Auckland researchers proved even the best exercise programme around would cost millions to implement while creating a minimal amount of extra activity in each child's life - and wouldn't mitigate diet.

He also said "the big bulk of consumer buying power is held by people who want healthier formulations". The fact is none of us have any idea how much sugar and fat is really pumped through our food. And if the industry had its way, none of us ever would.

The most interesting moment of Q+A was the reaction of Paul East, former National MP for Rotorua, an old-fashioned conservative. Like any civic-minded person, he thought the Government should do something, and predicted in any case "regulation will come".

If we are intent on reducing health spending on obesity, it will come - but only when political ideologues like Jonathan Coleman and the food lobby are comprehensively uncoupled.

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