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

  1. Gordon

    If a tax were imposed, would the companies involved be able to sue under the relevant provisions of the TPP for loss of revenue/income? Is that why the government indulges in mere policy tokenism?

  2. The global politicians today are all walking in the shadow of Wall Street.

    I have nothing against capitalism and the free enterprise system but I strongly object to cartel capitalism where the strong hold 99% of global wealth and dominate with their large global cartels.

    There is a big difference between free enterprise capitalism and cartel capitalism which is evident today.

  3. How can Health Minister Jonathan Coleman, as a former medical practitioner, deny internationally accepted evidence-based research that shows taxes on sugary food and drinks, limiting junk food advertising, and provision of free, healthy food in schools are three significant ways to improve children’s health and reduce obesity ? Provision of healthy food in schools for breakfast and lunch would reduce children’s craving for junk food and enable people on low income to have more money to spend on accommodation costs and essentials such as power, water, healthy food, clothing and other requirements.

    As a doctor, Jonathan Coleman would have taken the Hippocratic Oath that includes the statement, “I will remember that I remain a member of society, with special obligations to all my fellow human beings, those sound of mind and body as well as the infirm.” It is therefore bewildering that Coleman is part of the National Government, whose policies disadvantage the majority of the population, and in particular, the most vulnerable members of society, including people on low incomes, beneficiaries, State house tenants, people with disabilities, mentally ill people and elderly people.

    No doubt, most people who view themselves as “middle New Zealand” and consider people should take responsibility for themselves, including their health, would be outraged if their taxes contributed to helping others via healthy food in schools. This view is ironic, given that many “middle New Zealanders” are beneficiaries via the tax credit “Working for Families” and via their speculation and/or investment properties, which they rent out at very high costs to tenants who receive the accommodation supplement, funded by the taxpayer. Housing costs and property speculation are topics for another discussion.

    It seems that unless many “middle” New Zealanders are impacted directly by a serious health problem, in which case they are most likely to be treated in the taxpayer-funded public health system, or lose their jobs or property, in which case they will expect taxpayer funded support, they are unlikely to show any concern or compassion for people, including children, who experience socioeconomic deprivation and its consequences, which include major health problems.

  4. Further to my comment above, provision of free healthy food in schools for breakfast and lunch would improve children’s ability to concentrate and learn, having long-term health and social benefits by reducing long-term negative costs to the State, of people who were unable to learn due to socioeconomic deprivation.

    In addition to Working for Families and the Accommodation Supplement, which enables landlords to charge disproportionately high rents – just two examples of taxpayers’ support – if “middle New Zealanders” sustain injuries, they presumably expect to receive ACC-funded medical treatment, rehabilitation and weekly compensation, all funded by taxpayers.

    Given that “middle New Zealanders” receive significant taxpayer funded financial support, perhaps a “middle New Zealander” would like to explain why and how the provision of healthy food in schools would be detrimental to our society.

  5. Vivie I will answer but I am not a “middle New Zealander” as I was forced to enter into a contract with ACC as a “working kiwi” . And then following an accident ACC breached contract, broke the law and did not provide legal entitlements,medical care, medical treatments, rehabilitation or support so I am now a “poor dying disabled New Zealander” with no access to justice or to denied legal entitlements.

    For you to suggest Statism as a solution is ignorance. It is to suggest the govt as the creator and facilitator of economic problems should assume an even bigger authoritarian role- the role of a loveless parent for children.
    Putting those children into debt slavery for the corporate profiting off the provision of their food in their daily indoctrination.
    Suggesting growth of Statism ignores the economic disparity, dependency and growing poverty that it creates. It seeks instead to profit off this socioeconomic problem it created.
    The problems of mothers and fathers not being able to afford (or to know) how to to provide healthy food to their children.
    Statism is not a solution to the socioeconomic deprivation by the State.
    Unfortunately you are also ignorant of the NZ welfare system in which the biggest recipients of the taxpayer welfare are the bankers and their companies. https://aotearoaawiderperspective.wordpress.com/2015/10/27/first-it-was-christchurch-now-its-the-sky-contract-john-key-fattening-his-masters-again/

  6. Anabel: people who view themselves as “middle New Zealanders” are often “working Kiwis” as you put it, so I don’t follow your argument. You wanted to receive ACC taxpayer-funded entitlements. How does this differ from children getting taxpayer funded assistance via the provision of healthy food in schools? We know that the majority of New Zealanders do not earn livable incomes in comparison to their outgoings, which is why many receive Accommodation Supplement and Working for Families. People on benefits receive various types of assistance, but often not enough to meet the needs of themselves and their families.

    We know the National Government does not intend to increase the minimum wage to a livable level. As previously stated, the majority of New Zealanders receive taxpayer assistance in one form or another, via a range of benefits, and for many business people, via tax evasion and avoidance.

    As there will be no changes in the short term to the crisis of children living in poverty, why would you resent taxpayer-funded interventions to assist them by at least providing healthy breakfast and lunches in schools, to allow them to concentrate and learn? For various reasons, many parents and caregivers of these children cannot or will not provide sufficient nutritious food for their children. Why would you expect children to suffer the consequences of their parents’ poverty and/or ineptitude?

    In advanced countries, such as Scandinavian countries, schools provide taxpayer-funded meals, regardless of parents’ ability to pay for them. These countries have high standards of living, and comparatively equitable societies, because their people are willing to pay relatively high taxes to fund essential services and support each other. They generally think of others and not just of themselves, hence the high standard of living.

    Your unfortunate situation does not alter the fact that unless a major Government intervention takes place in the short term, such as provision of free, healthy food in schools, many children in New Zealand will suffer the consequences of socioeconomic deprivation throughout their lives.

  7. @Vivie no you are incorrect.
    You asked for a “middle class” response, I explained why I was not ‘middle class” .
    I had a contract with the Crown(ACC), paid for accident insurance and needed the denied medical care, medical treatments, legal entitlements. In place of a claim I was assaulted and battered left with no access to the insurance I had paid for.
    That ACC rort of the taxpayers is a whole subject on its own. It is not comparable to school lunches except in the similarity of the Crown’s deliberate calculated infliction of socioeconomic deprivation for the purpose of its own profit.

    You now bring up “Scandinavia” , high taxes are not optional and paying mandatory high taxes does not have anything to do with “thinking of others” as the taxes go to private bankers .

    I see a total disregard for problem solving and instead the Crown thinking it can use its actions of socioeconomic deprivation in order to increase its profit by increasing taxes.

    Your “Statism” and increased tax as a “solution” for State created poverty it is not a solution .
    You posed poor children of poor parents should be kept poor by the State AND the State should create more debt and bill the poor parents and poor children to pay for the extra costs of allowing their corporation( and private bankers) to profit off feeding poor children.
    This does not allow their parents to live in dignity with enough money to buy food for their children, for them to budget to use a whole week income every month to give to a privatized energy company.

    The solution to State created and State sustained socioeconomic deprivation is not “increased taxes”.
    Increasing numbers of children and adults ARE suffering the consequences of the Crown’s socioeconomic deprivation. State dependency on a lunch at school does not change the fact of State socioeconomic deprivation throughout their lives.
    Meanwhile the politicians sit in Bellamys getting their unneeded “free lunch” & “fair wages” talking about funding for “national obesity initiatives” and ways they can increase tax. And we continue to suffer the consequences of their ineptitude, lack of compassion and ignorance.

  8. @Anabel – your comments make no sense. You are clearly very disgruntled with ACC and have a sense of entitlement to taxpayer funded ACC support. Yet you repeatedly offer spurious justifications for the State not intervening to assist children who live in poverty. So, you expect the State to give money to you but not to give money to support vulnerable children. This is a double standard, hypocritical and shows limited moral development.

    You allege that Vivie suggests “poor children of poor parents should be kept poor by the State.” I’ve read her comments and it’s clear that your allegation is baseless. Vivie mentions that many business people and other high earners avoid and evade tax. Rather than low income earners paying more tax, if, in New Zealand, those who don’t pay their share of tax were punished to the full extent of the law, we would have enough money to pay a living wage and fund essential services. Also, if the National Government reversed the tax cuts that they gave and continue to give to the top earners, there would be significantly more money to go around for everyone.

    In any case, I suspect you are a right wing stooge for two reasons:

    1. You want State assistance through ACC, yet you are outraged by the prospect of other people getting State assistance. This contradiction is typical of right wingers, who begrudge people getting taxpayer support yet have their hands out for help if something happens to them.

    2. You have diverted this discussion from Dr Jonathan Coleman’s lack of adherence to his medical ethics and the Hippocratic Oath. You have not explained why it is acceptable for a doctor of medicine to support his corporate mates and refuse to do anything about the targeted marketing and hard selling of junk food to children. Obfuscation, distraction and not addressing a key issue are typical of right wingers who have no valid argument.

    Finally, it’s interesting that you criticise Vivie so much yet you use her language through your comments. This shows that you lack originality of thought.

  9. Anabel: Your second response has not in any clarified why you, as a declined ACC applicant, expect to receive taxpayer assistance yet resent others doing so.

    I can reach only the following conclusion from your comments:

    Either you are a genuine ACC applicant, declined of the entitlements you believe you deserve – in which case you exemplify the typical John Key/right wing supporter who wants the advantages of taxpayer-funded assistance, but resents others receiving this;

    – or –

    You are presenting a false scenario and trying to deflect from the issue of Jonathan Coleman having taken the Hippocratic Oath, which includes the statement “I will remember that I remain a member of society, with special obligations to all my fellow human beings, those sound of mind and body as well as the infirm”, while ignoring interventions supported by internationally accepted evidence-based research, which shows taxes on sugary food and drinks, limiting junk food advertising, and provision of free, healthy food in schools are three significant ways to improve children’s health and reduce obesity.

    Either way, you are evidently trying to redirect the course of the discussion and debate from the issue of reducing sugar consumption to improve children’s health, via Government initiatives.

  10. @ Gemma I am sorry you are unable to understand and did not listen to anything I said.

    Poverty is State created. I said I wanted the problem solved I want the poor to get MORE money from the Crown so the parents that are living in poverty are not living in poverty and can afford to buy enough food in this land of plenty.
    I want to see the end of the status quo and its State created poverty, wealth transfers and inequity.

    I am not “disgruntled” nor do I want anything from the taxpayers, I don’t collect tax or get tax takings. I privately paid for accident insurance and the Crown insurer committed many crimes and breached contract. I did not and do not get ANY support from ACC and I had my medical treatments and medical care denied by the Crown so you are way off base throwing around your “national party taxpayer bludger assumptions” .
    The only ones I see bludging are the private bankers that collect the tax then loan us money with interest. These bankers also have all their corporations enriched and bailed out by the taxpayers. Taxpayers who then suffer “austerity measures” while the obese govt gets more in wages and even buys a new fleet of luxury cars to haul the troughers around town.
    They create poverty then they suggest not ending poverty or giving the poor enough money but giving themselves more money, taking more.

  11. @Vivie your “conclusions” are incorrect.
    As is your “solution” to poverty which is not ending it. Not giving the poor more money so they can afford healthy food but keeping them in poverty, taking more taxes and spending more than it would cost to feed children lunch 5 days a week .

    More simply idiotic ideas from the creators of the socioeconomic problems. Continue the Crown’s socioeconomic hits on the poor, poverty inducing austerity measures and unfair social policies. Increased Statism in the form of school lunches 5 days a week -which does not reduce the poverty (or obesity).
    We can see from the usa school lunches that have not reduced poverty or obesity (and from sound research).

  12. Gemma/Vivie
    RE Your issue of Dr Coleman’s oath, many Drs have abandoned their oath or are making a new oath to the UN with its global TPP agenda of centralized govt. I think you can’t say for sure if Dr Colemen took an oath, and whom that oath was to, unless you are him.
    “Nazi euthanasia programme T4 which commenced in 1933, succeeded only because doctors abandoned the Hippocratic Oath and became subservient to the state. They were compelled to take an oath to promote the health of the fatherland. It was German doctors and nurses who implemented the deadly euthanasia programme that resulted in the killing of an estimated 250,000 Germans who were considered a burden on the state and not worthy of life. It was German doctors who stood on the railway sidings outside of Nazi concentration camps deciding who should be sent immediately to the gas chambers and who would be allowed to live as slaves”.

  13. The figure for the top .01% welfare is ten times higher than social welfare programs for the needy.


    Like the USA NZ spend much more on corporate welfare and handouts to the top 1 % than we do on welfare for families struggling to make ends meet.

    Anabel is right and if we want to end poverty we need to end the Crown’s socioeconomic deprivation of the poor and the ministry’s increasing discrimination of the vulnerable poor .
    Just funding the corporation to profit off serving 5 school lunches will not end socioeconomic deprivation, will not end poverty or have any positive effect on the obesity rates .

    In the USA healthy “Michelle Obama “lunches at school where “One-third of children from the ages of 6 to 19 are overweight or obese. In many schools the processed( but said to be “healthy school lunch” )food was often not eaten and the child would throw the food out go hungry and wait until after school to buy junk.
    Consuming higher sugar content as their blood sugar was so low.
    “Unfortunately, profit, not health, is the priority of the food service management companies, food processors and even elected officials” The (mis)education on food was provided by programmed parents and TV through many decades of govt approved and regulated TV programming.The same mega corporations that own McDonald’s burger king etc also controlled the govt “regulatory arm” , TV and media networks.

    It is more economical and a better solution to give the parents living in Crown induced socioeconomic deprivation enough money so that they don’t have to live in poverty and can afford to buy healthy food.

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