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Sugar taxes…the stuff that wouldn’t fit in the op-ed

I wrote an op-ed for The Press this week in response to some rather gratuitous coverage over the weekend on the public health ‘experts’ in favour of a sugar tax. I concluded:

There is much to take issue with in the campaign for a sugar tax, and not much convincing evidence that it will do what advocates say it will.

It is, of course, a question of ideology over whether it is the government’s job to address obesity and intervene in people’s freedom to make decisions over how they live their lives. But beyond that, there is a bigger question over whether a sugar tax will even achieve the public health goals it was designed to address.

If the sugar tax advocates really do believe that “merchants of doubt” are the most threatening bogeymen thwarting their laudable goal, surely they should have one countervailing weapon up their sleeve: proof.

Do read the rest of the piece. (By the way, I wrote the piece before I found out the Labour Party are actually taking such advocacy seriously. Had I known, my pen might have been a bit more acidic.)

The original article covered a lot of ground, and it was impossible to respond to all 2500ish words. It’s probably a good thing word limits exist though. I could write essays in response to the many claims that were made.

The main points in favour of a sugar tax were (my comments in italics):

  • Obesity is a problem in NZ and something should be done
    • That might be true, but recognising there is a problem shouldn’t mean we just rush into whatever solution just happens to be internationally trendy. Too often advocates for a sugar tax use this sense of urgency and impending disaster as an excuse to rush into untested policies. A much more interesting article would have talked about the causes of obesity, and would explore policies that directly targeted those causes. Even if we were to agree that obesity is a real issue that requires government action, sugar taxes are a blunt tool.
  • Other countries and states have introduced a sugar tax
    • The fact other countries are experimenting is even more of a reason to wait and see what outcomes they experience before trying the policy here. Different countries have introduced the tax for different reasons. Sometimes they are unashamedly a revenue-gathering tool. The actual tax design also differs. When we talk about ‘sugar taxes’ , we can’t lump the very different approaches together and pretend we’re talking about the same thing. 
  • The National Government respect individual freedom and choice ‘in the face of enormous cunning and deceptive marketing by the food industry’
    • Disagree, but maybe it’s more a philosophical point. The Health of the State discusses this issue of ‘rationality’ in more depth. In a nutshell: people need to get more credit for being capable of making decisions that are in their own best interests. When it comes to overall wellbeing, people’s preferences can’t be ignored.
  • The public mood is shifting in favour of a sugar tax
    • Well then, that negates the argument that the Nats won’t introduce one because they’re politically wary. Besides, even if it were true that a majority of NZers supported a sugar tax -I don’t think a standalone poll establishes this, but it could be true- then why aren’t people participating in opt-in measures to reduce their weight? Or are people answering on behalf of others who they believe could benefit from such measures?
  • The movement needs to happen from the ground up: obese people need to demand these policies for themselves.
    • Well, for sugar taxes they’re actually demanding the policy applies to everyone. 
  • Sugar taxes have worked overseas.
    • This is the most important part, and as The Press article noted, there have been lots of views and counter views on Mexico. This FactCheck source has a good roundup of the evidence to date. In The Health of the State, Eric Crampton also does a good job discussing the methodological problems in the latest Mexico study:
  • Finally, here’s something new we’ve learnt about soda consumption that hasn’t received nearly as much coverage as it deserves: ‘Soda taxes when store brands exist’. Basically, when the price of soda goes up because of a tax, the potential to shift to cheaper brands matters a great deal when measuring the effect on consumption.

I’d love to know what evidence is compelling Labour to change their minds on a sugar tax. The Health of the State is a bit dated now (a lot has happened since it went to print in Feb) but I think the criteria still apply: policies need to be based on well-designed studies that prove the tax reduces obesity (not price or consumption); and the public still needs to be convinced that the goal of reducing obesity is worth overriding our right to eat and drink what we choose.

About Jenesa Jeram (23 Articles)
I'm a researcher at the Initiative, currently working on social issues and public health. I have Twitter but I'm not very good at it: @JenesaJeram (I'm also super creative).

1 Comment on Sugar taxes…the stuff that wouldn’t fit in the op-ed

  1. John Coleman has denied there’s a problem and yet we see more obesity daily. What’s causing the problem? Sugar is used in nearly everything and it’s hard to avoid in “processed food”. The short term “sugar high” leads to needing more sugar and it is this combination thats the problem!

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