Fresh call for sugar tax follows damning review of child obesity plan
A damning assessment of the Government's childhood obesity plan has renewed calls for a sugary drinks tax.
Auckland University epidemiologists Gerhard Sundborn and Simon Thorley, marketing lecturer Bodo Lang and spokesman for the New Zealand Dental Association Rob Beaglehole said the plan was weak and did not address the cause of obesity – excess sugar consumption.
Their review of 22 initiatives launched by Minister of Health Jonathan Coleman to address child obesity was published in the New Zealand Medical Journal (NZMJ) on Friday.
A lack of "meaningful regulation" of sugary food and drinks showed the Government was beholden to the profit-driven food industry, it said.
When he launched the plan in October last year, Coleman said tackling childhood obesity required a mix of new existing measures.
"The Childhood Obesity Plan includes improved public information and resources; increasing physical activity, some of which will be done in education settings; actions for the health sector, and the food and beverage industry."
At the core of the plan was a new initiative to screen pre-schoolers and pregnant women for obesity.
One in nine children aged 2-14 years old are obese, according to the Ministry of Health national survey for 2014-15.
Sundborn said the plan failed to address the "unique role of sugar in the development of unhealthy weight gain" and instead relied on an outdated low-fat philosophy.
The Government's food labelling system, health star rating, was flawed, the review said.
"It is voluntary, confusing and rates many foods with high concentrations of sugar as healthy."
Of all the initiatives, the ban on sugary drinks in hospitals was the only one that "showed promise".
Sundborn said the Government's refusal to introduce a Sugar Sweetened Beverage (SSB) tax indicated it was beholden to the food industry.
"[An] SSB tax is the second recommendation made by the World Health Organisation (WHO) Ending Childhood Obesity Commission and was recommended by the Technical Advisory Group (a group of New Zealand experts in the field of obesity prevention established by the Ministry of Health).
"But it was not supported by the Industry Forum Group that contributed to the development of the [Childhood Obesity Plan]."
Coleman's office said the minister was not able to respond directly to the NZMJ letter as he was returning to New Zealand from Brazil but previous comments on the childhood obesity plan stood.
"New Zealand is now one of the few countries in the OECD to have a target and a comprehensive plan to tackle childhood obesity.
"A sugar tax was not included as part of the Childhood Obesity Plan as there is insufficient evidence at this stage that a tax would be effective in reducing obesity and improving health outcomes. We're keeping a watching brief on emerging evidence, including from the University of Waikato which is assessing the impact of sugar taxes in other countries."
CHILDHOOD OBESITY FACTS:
- One in nine children (aged 2–14 years) were obese (11 per cent).
- A further 22 per cent were children were overweight but not obese.
- 15 per cent of Māori children were obese.
- 30 per cent of Pacific children were obese.
- Children living in the most deprived areas were five times as likely to be obese as children living in the least deprived areas.
- The child obesity rate increased from 8 per cent in 2006-07 to 11 per cent in 2014-15.
* Based on data from the New Zealand health survey 2014-15