I made a visit to Parliament this week. I was there to speak to the Health Select Committee about something I was involved with a couple of years ago: a petition for a tax on sugary drinks.
I am a bit surprised to be still talking about this topic. To be honest, I thought that by now, we'd have a tax on sugary drinks in place.
After all, we have a government with a focus on wellbeing and a commitment to evidence-based policy. We have an Associate Health Minister who's on record as supportive of a tax. And we have a consensus among health experts that a tax will help stem the tides of obesity, type 2 diabetes and dental decay that show no signs of slowing. Did you know that 40,000 kids and 272,000 adults had one or more teeth removed due to dental decay or abscess last year?
Taxes on sugary drinks have been implemented in 28 countries around the world. The most interesting is the UK example. A levy was put in place in 2018, notably by a Conservative government. The levy is on drinks manufacturers at two levels; the higher the sugar percentage in a drink, the higher the tax.
It's had a very interesting effect. Before the tax even came in, more than 50 per cent of manufacturers reduced the sugar content of their drinks, removing the equivalent of 45 million kilos of sugar a year from the food supply.
Since then, the sugar content of taxed sugary drinks has come down even more: a 29 per cent sugar reduction per 100ml.
On the other hand, the sugar content of non-taxed drinks and non-taxed sweet snacks has stayed stubbornly high, despite voluntary sugar reduction initiatives by manufacturers. (The latter is the option far preferred by the food industry here.)
Taxes work. Far, far better than relying on industry to make changes on its own.
As well as encouraging manufacturers to reformulate, the UK tax also serves as education in its own right: the awareness of a tax on sugary drinks highlights they're not a healthy choice. It has meant a consumer shift towards no- or lower-sugar products.
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I think the tide has shifted when it comes to public support for a tax, here. At least two thirds of Kiwis support a tax.
So there's social licence to do it; there is certainly support in the health care community. And there is evidence of its effectiveness. It is an idea whose time has come.
In the words of Laupepa, one of the 10,000 Kiwis who signed the petition:
"Government, regardless of who is in power, should not fear to use regulation as one of many tools to control obesity if it truly has the interests of New Zealanders' health at heart. We can no longer rely on health promotion and education alone as the mainstay of our health strategies. We can no longer try the 'wait and see' approach ... A bold and brave government is needed to make the hard choices."
• Niki Bezzant is editor-at-large for Healthy Food Guide; www.healthyfood.com