Sugar's bitter after-effects

23:16, Jul 28 2014

'Every day I have to extract teeth which are rotten to the core by super- sweet sugar drinks in young children. Often under general anaesthetic this carries risks. In my daily job, I extract over 50 teeth from children each week".

This mundane reality, expressed by Nelson Marlborough District Health Board principal dentist Rob Beaglehole and echoed by dentists up and down the country, is generally ignored by the food industry and its boardroom executives (Katherine Rich, Tax won't downsize NZ's obesity issue, July 9).

The industry plays no role in picking up the pieces after people have had too many of their products, and are less likely to champion strategies to improve New Zealanders' health. The motive of the food industry reads as if profit trumps the public good.

Added sugars and sugary drink intake cause rotten teeth. This relationship has been established beyond doubt. Many other studies show that sugary drink intake leads to obesity, diabetes, gout, heart attacks and stroke.

Forty two per cent of New Zealand's 5-year-olds have dental disease, and each year 34,000 children require teeth to be removed. In 2009, a staggering 5050 children aged 7 years and younger were put under general anaesthetic for multiple tooth extractions and treatment, at a cost to the tax payer of more than $20 million.

These huge costs as well as those from obesity, diabetes and gout to our health system present a convincing case for the introduction of a tax on sugary drinks.

Advertisement

Food and Grocery Council's chief executive Katherine Rich presents a poorly-informed assessment of the merits of a tax on sugary drinks that reads, to us at least, as biased and gratuitously emotive.

The New Zealand Beverage Guidance Panel's recommendation for an excise tax on sugary drinks is just that. It means the tax would apply only to sugar-containing drinks.

Drinks that are not sweetened with added sugar, such as diet and "zero" versions, water and unflavoured milk would be exempt.

Rich has muddied the waters by suggesting that the proposed tax would include drinks that fall outside the criteria of having added sugar and seeks to undermine the merits of the tax.

To implement a tax on sugary drinks would be practically quite simple, unlike a tax on sugar - that presents hurdles about which food items would qualify or be exempt. The suggestion that a tax on sugar in food products has been proposed is again misleading.

The industry creates a misguided sense of hysteria with her calculation of a 500 per cent tax (like tobacco) on a 1.5 litre drink moving its price from $3.39 to $17. What is proposed is a 20 per cent sugary-drink tax, meaning just a price increase from $3.39 to $4.07.

The claim that sugar intake has reduced is again misinformed. Health authorities have progressively suggested lower sugar intake, but evidence strongly suggests New Zealanders are consuming more than ever.

The most recent World Health Organisation's recommendation on added sugar intake identifies that a reduction from 10 per cent (12 teaspoons) to 5 per cent (six teaspoons) of total energy intake would have some added health benefits.

The American Heart Association recommends a maximum daily intake of three teaspoons for children, six for women, and nine teaspoons for men. Yet, conservative measures show that New Zealand children consume between 14 and 17 teaspoons of added sugar daily - four to six times the total recommended. Sugar-sweetened beverages are the leading contributor (26 per cent) of added sugar in their diets, providing a rationale to tax these products.

The health effects of introducing taxes on sugary drinks have been evaluated in other countries. Taxation reduces sugary drink intake and trims waistlines, especially for those who are overweight and obese. Demand for sugary drinks shows price elasticity, meaning that the higher the price, the less people buy, especially for people on lower incomes.

In short, independent evidence contradicts Rich's arguments that the tax will be ineffective and just another burden on the family grocery bill.

Rich's use of commentary by Professor Jack Winkler around the elasticity of soft-drinks shows the industry's own failure to "take time to critically evaluate what would be a complex policy". Winkler refers to a soft-drink tax. However, what is proposed in New Zealand is a tax on sugar- sweetened beverages (SSBs). Soft- drinks are much less price-elastic than the overall category of SSBs. Sugary-drink price elasticity is estimated at -1.21. This means that a 1 per cent increase in price leads to a similar percentage drop in demand.

A recent Mexican study has endorsed this figure, with the introduction of a sugary-drink tax of 10 per cent leading to an 8 per cent decline in intake.

Compared with sugary drinks, consumers are less sensitive to tobacco price.

Elasticity measures for tobacco range from -0.2 to -0.6. Despite this evidence, government has embraced a cigarette tax to support tobacco control efforts.

Taxes on sugary drinks have existed for more than a decade. They exist in more than 15 states in the United States, and more than 10 countries.

In New Zealand, our experience has been that there is strong support for the tax expressed by academics, researchers, health professionals, community leaders, some political parties and the public.

A tax on sugary drinks is an important part of a comprehensive and progressive strategy to reduce our overall intake of sugar.

This means progress toward reducing the epidemic of dental disease in children and our epidemic of obesity.

The Government, if it is concerned for New Zealand's health, needs to introduce the proposed tax.

Apart from the benefits of cutting down sugar, the estimated $40 million revenue raised would go a long way to funding programmes to help us all stay out of the dentist's chair or hospital gurney.

- Gerhard Sundborn, Rob Beaglehole and Simon Thornley are part of the New Zealand Beverage Guidance Panel, which is advocating a tax on sugary drinks.

The Dominion Post