Tax on sugary drinks could save lives

20:52, Feb 13 2014

A tax on sugary drinks could save lives and reduce New Zealand's obesity burden, new research shows.

Research published today in the New Zealand Medical Journal shows a 20 per cent tax on sugary soft drinks would prevent 67 deaths from cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and diet-related cancers per year.

Its author, Professor Tony Blakely, of the Department of Public Health at the University of Otago, said a tax on sugary drinks would be a simple and smart move to fight obesity and related illnesses.

"If you're thinking of one tax or subsidy on food, then this is [it]," Blakely said.

"Sugary soft drinks are disproportionately drunk by kids. We've got big problems [in New Zealand] with childhood obesity. In other countries it's plateaued out and here it hasn't – that's a real issue."

The study, led by the National Institute for Health Innovation at the University of Auckland and in collaboration with the University of Otago, was carried out as part of a larger look at the effects of health-related food taxes and subsidies.


Blakely said although the figures were "inherently uncertain", it was estimated 67 deaths per year would be avoided, and a tax of 20 per cent would generate up to $40 million revenue per year to fund obesity prevention (even allowing for reduction in consumption due to tax).

If sugar-sweetened cordials and fruit juice were included in the calculations, the numbers would be higher.

"It's almost inescapable that there isn't a health benefit. There's no way there's zero."

Compared to the controversial "fat tax", a fizzy drink tax would be "absolutely an easier place to start", but ultimately had to be part of a larger scheme.

Blakely's personal opinion was that diet drinks should not be taxed, hence the food industry would have an easy "substitute" beverage.

The report said Maori and Pacific Islanders would benefit the most from such a tax, as they were on average more responsive to changes in food prices and were higher consumers of sugary drinks.

Lead researcher Professor Cliona Ni Mhurchu said randomised controlled trial data had shown "convincingly" that reducing consumption of sugary drinks decreased weight gain in children.

Professor Boyd Swinburn, of Population Nutrition and Global Health at the University of Auckland, agreed that the scheme was "an excellent building platform", but urged Treasury to act on the findings in conjunction with other prevention initiatives.

"It's all well within what is being recommended internationally. [The Government] needs to take it very seriously," Swinburn said.

"Of all the options for taxes it certainly seems that the tax on sugar-sweetened beverages is the best way to start because there's no downside.

"It's eminently feasible. These drinks add nothing but bad things to nutrition profiles."

Heart Foundation medical director Norman Sharpe said the Heart Foundation was strongly supportive of the tax, as part of the development of a "comprehensive food and nutrition plan for our children".

"Any such tax needs to be considered with other aspects of such affordability of healthy food, food labelling, regulation of advertising of unhealthy foods and the need for healthy food environment for children generally."

Coca-Cola Amatil New Zealand said a tax on soft drinks or other sweetened beverages would not work to fix the obesity problem on its own.

"We need to ensure people understand that when it comes to weight management, all kilojoules count, regardless of the source – and that includes our products, too."

The brand said it already had commitments in place to help fight obesity, including low-kilojoule or diet soft drinks, smaller portion sizes, clear labelling of product nutritional information, and support for physical activity programmes such as Move60, and sports equipment giveaways.

Fairfax Media