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Sweet Rebellion: campaign for a sugar-sweetened beverage tax

Sweet Rebellion: a campaign for a sugar-sweetened beverage tax in New Zealand

Dr. Tiffany Parmenter, BSc(hons), PhD

Ishika Jayasinghe

Dr. Charlotte Jordan

on behalf of Sweet Rebellion.

Recently, as part of our undergraduate medical training, we undertook a project aiming to devise strategies to address childhood obesity. During the course of this week-long project, we discovered that in the Growing Up in New Zealand Study, 5% of four-year-olds were found to be consuming fizzy drinks daily. Sugary drink intake is now widely recognized as an important cause of childhood obesity, and they are also linked with illnesses such as type 2 diabetes, raised blood pressure, gout, tooth decay and weight gain. Perhaps it’s not surprising then that NZ has one of the highest childhood obesity rates in the world, with around 1 in 10 Kiwi kids weighing in as obese. The problem with childhood obesity isn’t just one of appearance and self-esteem. Obesity poses serious health risks including increased risk of hip malformations that require surgical correction and type 2 diabetes.

During this project, we also interviewed a number of nonprofit and community organisations. Many of these expressed frustration about being unable to take a stance on this debate, due to financial dependence on government or private companies with conflicting financial interests. Our health minister, Jonathan Coleman has made it very clear that the National government will not consider this initiative, despite the mounting evidence that it is an effective strategy to reduce consumption of sugary drinks. Because of this, the hands of some of NZ’s biggest health advocates are tied - they are unable to voice their support for a public health initiative with strong supporting data. Instead, the government’s anti-obesity brain-child is the Child Obesity Plan (ChOP) which focuses on lifestyle-behavioral change at the individual-level. Unfortunately, this plan ignores the evidence that is agreed upon by reputable organisations such as the WHO and the NZ Heart Foundation, that long-term change is best achieved by a complementary programme of strategies acting at the individual- and population-levels, including regulatory changes such as sugary drinks taxes.

We would love to claim that we are terribly clever and forward-thinking in this strategy, but the fact is that the concept of a sugary drinks tax is in no way a novel one. Similar taxes have been used in other parts of the world including Mexico, Berkeley, Denmark, France, Hungary and Ireland. The UK has also passed similar legislation that will come into effect in April, 2018. In Mexico, a 10% tax on sugary drinks resulted in a sustained decrease in sugary drink consumption of around 10%, while intake of untaxed drinks, principally bottled water, increased.

So, the evidence is there that this strategy works, and what’s more, a number of polls have now shown that more than half of Kiwis support this initiative. During our brief time working on this campaign, we have had a chance to discuss this idea with a lot of people, and we see a few recurring themes that we would like to address:
1. “Just subsidise fruit and vegetables!” We completely agree and we believe that the proceeds of the proposed tax should go towards healthy eating initiatives just like this.
2. “I just don’t believe that a tax will work.” We want you to know that the results are in and these taxes do decrease consumption of sugary drinks. Just as similar taxation of tobacco decreased smoking rates.
3. “Parents should be educated about the dangers of sugary drinks.” Education is absolutely a part of the solution - taxation alone is not the whole answer. However, public health education programmes have been around for years, yet our obesity rates continue to climb.
4. “But I consume responsibly - why am I being punished?” Maybe you’re right to be a bit upset, but the fact is that the cost to these kids is far greater than the extra cost to someone who has a sugary drink on the odd occasion. We have to think of the greater good.

For too long, the sugary beverage companies have been allowed to profit from products which harm the health of our kids. It’s time to take back control of our health. To join our Sweet Rebellion, visit www.sweetrebellion.co.nz, like us on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/sweetrebellionz/ or sign the petition at https://www.change.org/p/parliament-petition-for-a-tax-on-sugar-sweetened-beverages

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