Why New Zealand is due for a sugar tax, according to an expert

Long Lunch 14/09/2018

New Zealand is lagging behind dozens of countries who have gotten aboard the sugar tax train, says a public health expert.

Many health experts and dentists have long called for a tax on the calorific sweetener, despite the coalition Government’s aversion to introduce another tax.

“Australia and New Zealand are very high consumers of sugary beverages so a tax is needed to help reduce that,” said Barry M Popkin, a distinguished professor at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), children should have a maximum of three teaspoons a day and adults six teaspoons a day.

New Zealanders, however, typically consume six times that amount, according to 2017 research. 

We are in a climate where people just don’t want taxes.

The world’s sugar tax club now boasts 38 countries, according to Dr Popkin, including Mexico, Chile, and the United Kingdom.

A tax on sugary drinks in the UK came into force in April with 18p per litre for drinks with more than 5g of sugar per 100ml, and 24p per litre if they contain more than 8g per 100ml. Coca-Cola, for example, would fall into the latter category.

As a result of the tax, Dr Popkin told RadioLIVE that British companies reduced the amount of sugar in their products to avoid a higher tax bracket.  

A world-leading sugar tax in Mexico has shown a reduction in sugary beverage purchases over the past four years, with more water bought as an alternative. It's unclear yet whether it's had an effect on obesity rates.

Dr Popkin says a sugar tax puts beverage companies in check.

While Dr Popkin admitted that not all tax revenue goes back into health services, some US cities and the UK have put the revenue towards “enormously critical” health services for the country.

He told RadioLIVE that the cost of diabetes, strokes and cancer put a strain on health services, which is what prompted the UK’s tax in the first place.

But New Zealand’s Labour Party has promised that no new taxes will be added until after the 2020 election, after National criticised the party for the vagueness of its 2017 tax policy.

“We are in a climate where people just don’t want taxes,” Dr Popkin told RadioLIVE.

Advice provided to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern earlier this year, released this week under the Official Information Act, said a sugar tax would work - especially for lower-income households.

"Reduction of consumption via a tax will probably be greatest among the households with the lowest disposable income," science advisor John Potter said.

The Prime Minister's office said there are no plans to introduce a sugar tax "at this time".

Listen to all the full interview with Dr Barry Popkin above.

The Long Lunch with Wendyl Nissen, 12pm - 3pm on RadioLIVE and streaming live to the rova app on Android and iPhone.

RadioLIVE.