Community Scoop

Nanny State and a spoonful of sugar

Warren L 200x300Warren Lindberg
Chief Executive
Public Health Association of New Zealand | Kāhui Hauora Tūmatanui

Minister of Health Jonathan Coleman said back in April, “There is still no evidence a  [sugar] tax would actually decrease obesity.  There is no simple answer otherwise people would have tried it”.

We can agree with the part of his statement that says “there is no simple answer”, but there’re also quite a few people in the health sector determined to help the Minister find a range of answers – some complex, others quite simple.

I would also go so far as to agree that taxes on things people like, such as sugary drinks, don’t work very well if people don’t understand why they should have to pay more for them.  If the potential benefits are not understood or valued – consumers may rebel.  There are still enough politicians around who remember what happened in response to the Labour Government’s ‘black budget’ of 1958 that increased taxes on beer, cigarettes and petrol..

However, there is increasing evidence that the effect of tax on price has a role to play.  A new study (in which Otago University’s professor Tony Blakely was a co-author) published recently in the journal Lancet Public Health “adds to the growing body of evidence that fiscal policy tools [taxes or levies] applied to sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs) may benefit health, particularly child health, and may save costs for health systems”.  Implications of the study for New Zealand are discussed by Tony Blakely in the Otago University’s Public Health Expert blog, December 16.

Meanwhile, a coalition led by the NZ Dental Association, supported by about a dozen non-government organizations, including the National Heart Foundation, Hapai te Hauora Tapui and the Public Health Association, has developed a new strategy that includes tax, but has a quite different starting point.

The consensus statement adopted by the Sugar-free Drinks Coalition starts with the need for consumers – individuals, families and communities – to be able to quantify the problem for themselves.

I think the problem of poor oral health and obesity among children are generally well understood.  Both have lifetime health consequences, both are preventable and both impose avoidable costs on the health system.

Sugary drinks are cheap, readily available, widely advertised and the major source of sugars consumed by children and young people.  Excessive consumption of sugary drinks is associated with dental caries, weight gain and obesity, so they must be an obvious target for change.

What is not so well understood is how much sugar is in our food and drink – and technical measures in grams per millilitre are not much help.  The first step is simple: we need the information expressed in a familiar form – teaspoons.

The World Health Organization recommends a daily maximum of ten teaspoons of free sugar for kids – 3 teaspoons for littlies – and 12 for adults.  A 600ml bottle contains about 16 teaspoons of sugar, and a regular 375ml can has about 10.

The strategy also includes some things Government needs to do to help.  Mandatory teaspoon icons on packaging, regulation of marketing to children, a media campaign – and an excise tax – would all help.

But I think that starting with the humble teaspoon can empower individuals and families to make their own most important decisions to improve their health.

This blog has been contributed by a member of ComVoices

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