To sugar tax or not to sugar tax…


stuff pick your drink

To sugar tax or not to sugar tax…is that the question..?

In a recent post, Masterchef judge Ray McVinnie supported the call for a tax on sugary drinks…

I couldn’t agree more with Niki Bezzant who in her Herald column this morning called for a tax on sugary drinks. Her petition is a great idea and the beginning of a social change movement to curb the processed food industry’s use of ingredients and technology that is simply bad for our biology.
The test for the harm such food does to humans is the fact that any population that abandons a traditional diet for one made up of western processed foods becomes sick and in the words of American chef, Alice Waters, dies a long slow death. She also says that there is no such thing as cheap food, you either pay now or pay later!
The processed food industry is in a similar position to the tobacco industry thirty years or so ago. No one could quite believe that smoking was harmful and industry resistance was strong. Think about attitudes to tobacco today.
As for worrying about the effect on low income people, this type of processed food is unnecessary, there is still lots of good food that people can afford, no matter your income.
But one thing that is never mentioned is cooking. Teaching people to cook is like giving a hungry person the fishing rod not the fish. It gives people power over their diet, teaches people about food and expands their food choices.
There is no point forbidding everything if you don’t give people an alternative. Once people know how to create their own food, the toxic products of the processed food industry become irrelevant because you don’t need them.
It also reinforces the important socialising effect of home cooked food because it is generally served at the shared table, the place where you learn to behave.
I am not advocating trying to turn the clock back as that is impossible and ridiculous, as are naive ideas like using other things to make food sweet.
Face it, any food that is sweet is made with sugar in some form or a chemical sweetener (stevia is perhaps an exception, but sweetness is still an addictive flavour wherever it comes from).
Well done Ms Bezzant, more please.

I think that Ray somewhat looses the plot about halfway through his post. He starts and finishes by applauding the call for a ‘sugar tax’ but wanders in between to advocating for better education in preparing food.

He compares the processed food industry today with the tobacco industry of thirty years ago but misses the connection that increasing the tax on tobacco has not been the big nudge to drive smokers to drop their habit. If anything, the biggest motivation for smokers to give up has been the banning of smoking in bars, especially in winter when the attractions of a smoke are outweighed by the unpleasantness of the weather.

Increasing the tax on tobacco has not caused a massive reduction in the numbers of smokers in New Zealand and it is unlikely that a tax on sugary drinks will drive any great improvement in national health statistics. Considering statistics on the consumption of tobacco and alcohol, it is more than likely that consumption will remain much the same.

It would be nice to think that an increase in the tax on sugary drinks might be accompanied by a reduction in the tax on fruit and vegetables. While I would personally support this, as I consume far more fresh fruit and vegetables than I do sugary drinks, I don’t think that it would create the desired effect: healthy people would get healthy, unhealthy people would continue with their unhealthy habits….just look at the smoking lobby or those who drink to excess and/or by habit…

Sugary drinks and fresh fruit and veg are chalk and cheese and cannot be managed in a tit for tat manner: those who prefer one over the other will continue to do so regardless of cost. Those less affluent will always find money for those perceived needs over the staples of life and wellness. Thus, faux comparisons like cauliflowers v Happy Meals do not help the cause for an effective information and education programme. Try buying your kids a head of cauli as a treat and see how far you get…everything has its place…

Two key truisms about taxes are that they are usually unfair to someone and people will always find a way around. It would be as effective to create a tax that targets those with an adverse BMI figure…

The body mass index (BMI) or Quetelet index is a value derived from the mass (weight) and height of an individual. The BMI is defined as the body mass divided by the square of the body height, and is universally expressed in units of kg/m2, resulting from mass in kilograms and height in metres.

wiki bmi table

Source: Wikipedia

That way, would we not be targeting only those adversely affecting by an over-sugared diet? Of course we wouldn’t! Any tax-based attempt to change people’s habits is doomed to failure. Similarly we would require all couches to trigger a minor electrical shock every 30 minutes to ‘encourage’ their occupants to get up and do something. Do you think Dunedin would the only place in New Zealand where couch burning is a recognised sport..?

dunners couch burning

The key is not nanny state tax manipulation but, as Ray points out – kind of – information and education.Even with the best information and education programmes, though, we do need to accept that not everyone will get the message and climb aboard…we can only save those want to get aboard the lifeboat…

Don’t get me wrong…I am concerned about the average health of our people, to the extent that I have tagged this post under ‘countering irregular threats’: not only this is a greater threat to New Zealand than more commonly accepted irregular threats like terrorism or crime but the solutions (yes, plural!) also lie in similar approaches i.e. the changes necessary to create a positive effect will be drive by culture not by mandate or coercion…

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