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Gordon Campbell on the Govt’s refusal to use tackle obesity

Gordon Campbell on the government’s refusal to tax sugar drinks and tackle obesity

True to form, the government seems more concerned about the financial health of the food industry than the actual physical health of New Zealand children. No real surprise there. The Key government has consistently refused to take meaningful action to protect public health against the marketing of harmful products. In 2012, it watered down the Law Commission’s proposed liquor industry changes, and similarly last year it refused once again to raise the tax on alcohol – long after the role of alcopops as recruitment drugs to alcohol use and abuse by young drinkers had become obvious. Wilfully, the government has chosen to ignore the precedent whereby hiking the tax on cigarettes has been shown to reduce the use of a harmful product.

In a deliberate attempt to confuse the public, Health Minister Jonathan Coleman is talking up the difficulty of imposing a sugar tax across all food ingredients. But that’s not what’s being proposed. What is being proposed is a tax on sugar drinks. In the UK, British PM David Cameron – John Key’s mentor - is reportedly still considering a 20 per cent tax on sugar sweetened drinks. Reportedly, this would add 7p to the cost of a 330ml bottle of sugar pop. As celebrity chef Jamie Oliver has argued:

“We should work out who is running the country. Is it businesses – who are profiting from ill health in our country – or is it us?” More important than the tax itself, he said, would be the message it sent that the government “is willing to fight tooth and nail for public health, and especially children’s health”.

In the UK, the main fast food outlets have made some (small) concessions to public pressure. McDonalds, Wendys, and Burger King have all banned sugar drinks from the combo meals they offer to children. The need for a responsible government to take further action is pretty obvious:

The WHO says New Zealand experienced the fourth-greatest growth in fast-food purchasing among 25 high-income nations from 1999 to 2008. All 25 also increased their weight for height - and NZ was well in front with an increase of more than one point on the body mass (BMI) scale on which a score of 25-29.9 is overweight and 30-plus is obese.

Research carried out at Auckland University by Dr Helen Eyles has shown how easily fast food can contribute to obesity:

For a typical woman, the four Burger King combos that made the favourites list carried between 35 and 54 per cent of the recommended daily intake of energy and 137 to 185 per cent of the recommended daily limit for sugar. The McDonald's favourites would give her 31 to 41 per cent of her recommended daily energy.

The government response to the particular problem of child obesity? It could hardly be more token. No new money has been allocated, and only $7 million has been shifted around from existing exercise and education programmes. As Dr. Boyd Swinburn pointed out on RNZ pointed out this morning, what the government is proposing has ignored the core World Health Organisation recommendations, and the government’s own science adviser as well.

University of Auckland professor of Population, Nutrition and Global Health Boyd Swinburn said while the plan contained positives - like identifying children with obesity - research showed many of the 22 initiatives are the least cost effective at reducing childhood obesity.

He pointed to a World Health Organisaton (WHO) report published last month on ending childhood obesity, which was co-chaired by the prime minister's chief science advisor Peter Gluckman and identified several key measures.

They included taxes on sugar-sweetened drinks, and healthy food policies in schools, childcare centres and government agencies.

"If you really want to do something about childhood obesity then the most cost-effective measures are restrictions on junk food marketing to kids, taxes on sugar-sweetened beverages and policies for healthy food service throughout schools, early childhood centres and, in fact, any agency or department that the government has control over," he said.

All of which the Key government is refusing to do. Forget Eminem. Here’s National’s theme song for the next election:

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