Editorial: Thanks to Jamie Oliver, the time has come for a sugar tax
There is a tipping point when an idea crosses from fringe activism or academic discussion into the mainstream and it often takes a celebrity with credibility and popular appeal to get it there. You know the moment when you see it. Thanks to Jamie Oliver, a sugar tax has just had that moment in New Zealand.
The British TV chef turned kids' food campaigner delivered a video message to delegates at a "Fizz" conference in Auckland. It is obvious that Fizz, an abbreviation of Fight Sugar in Soft Drinks, is better at attention-getting campaigns than devising acronyms. Oliver's message has put the issue firmly on the news agenda.
Oliver led the charge in the UK, where a sugar tax will come into force in 2018, despite political resistance. CNN reported in March that the promise of a tax is already having an effect, with major brands proactively cutting sugar.
In his video, Oliver implored the New Zealand Government to follow suit. But Health Minister Jonathan Coleman declined an invitation to even attend the Fizz conference.
The issue of obesity has become urgent in New Zealand. We have the third highest obesity rate in the OECD. One in three of our adults and one in 10 of our children qualify as obese.
This is a health crisis and it is becoming more and more clear that a sugar tax is an effective way to tackle it. Oliver, with his enviable ability to cut through the jargon, calls our obesity rates "disgusting" and "nuts".
The most common traditional argument against a sugar tax says that it would amount to a tax on the poor. But a newly released study from the Deakin University Global Obesity Centre in Australia suggests otherwise.
A 20 per cent soft drink tax would add an extra A$35 (NZ$36.60) to the costs of lower-income households, around A$5 (NZ$5.23) more than wealthier households, due to higher levels of consumption. But the health benefits that the tax would generate would also be disproportionately beneficial to the same low-income households.
Astonishingly, the study's authors calculated that the entire Australian population could live an extra 175,300 years if the sugar tax was introduced. There would be healthcare savings of A$1.7 billion (NZ$1.78b) per year and a tax gain of A$642.9 million ($673.1m).
The Australian study assumed that a tax would drive a 13 to 15 per cent drop in the consumption of soft drinks and modelled the impact on five different socioeconomic groups. The average extra cost across all groups is a mere A60 cents (NZ63c) a week.
This means that a 20 per cent tax could be just enough to combat impulse buying in dairies and supermarkets where soft drinks are cheaper than milk or bottled water.
There will always be critics who argue that food and drink is a question of consumer choice and that the Government should butt out of people's lives and preferences. And while there are merits to that view, the evidence for the benefits of a sugar tax is mounting while the obesity crisis threatens to become an ever-greater burden on an already stressed health system.
The choice seems clear. Or as Jamie Oliver put it, "Anyone that could debate this needs a slap."
Philip Matthews is a senior writer at Fairfax Media.