Educating families on healthy diet choices is more effective than a proposed tax on sugary drinks to fight obesity, a Wairarapa principal says.

"I know we do it with cigarettes and alcohol ... but it's hard to say [if it would work]," said Featherston School principal Phil Robertson. "If it's not sugary drinks it's going to be something else."

His comments follow calls for sugar-sweetened beverages to be regulated like tobacco as a first step to combating New Zealand's obesity epidemic, presented at the Public Health Association Conference in New Plymouth earlier this week.

Mr Robertson said his school had implemented a 'water only' policy for a number of years, based on "ample evidence" that sugary drinks affected children's behaviour, making them hyperactive.


If a child brought a sugary drink to school teachers would confiscate it and return it after classes finished for the day.

"I think education's probably the best way to deal with these things," he said.

"I'm probably of the opinion that there's more than enough taxes in the country."

In 2012, a coroner's report found Invercargill mother-of-eight Natasha Marie Harris, 31, died of cardiac arrhythmia caused by poor nutrition and the effects of caffeine.

An inquest revealed Ms Harris drank only Coke and consumed between six and 10 litres a day.

Gerhard Sundborn, from Auckland University, has proposed an 'end-game' strategy for sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs) in New Zealand.

Based on the current tobacco end-game, which aims to see New Zealand smokefree by 2025, the SSB equivalent would see a heavy decrease in the amount of sugar Kiwis consume in drinks.

"There's no denying obesity has become an epidemic. By regulating the sugar content in beverages we'll be taking the first step to combating this global health problem."

Dr Sundborn said current initiatives to tackle obesity had proven ineffective, and data suggested our sugar intake was growing.

"Just like tobacco, evidence also suggests many New Zealanders are addicted to sugar. People coming off a high sugar diet can often experience withdrawal symptoms, which is another reason these drinks need to be regulated."

The end-game strategy would see a reduction in SSBs in favour of artificially sweetened beverages, which aren't as detrimental to health. In time, these too would decrease in favour of healthier unsweetened drinks like water and milk.

Other suggestions include healthy vending machine policies and a tax on sugary drinks.

New Zealand Nutrition Foundation dietician Sarah Hanrahan said sugar was an emerging issue. Interventions such as taxing SSBs were worth considering.

"They have empty calories, they're not contributing anything else of nutritional value which makes them easier to isolate as a high sugar area where perhaps you could intervene.

"You'd need a whole lot more evidence to show it would be effective but absolutely it's a strategy worth pursuing."APNZ