Jenée Tibshraeny on how the clash of political, corporate and scientific interests isn't getting us anywhere on the fat tax debate

Jenée Tibshraeny on how the clash of political, corporate and scientific interests isn't getting us anywhere on the fat tax debate

We tax alcohol and tobacco, but why has on-going debate around taxing unhealthy food and drinks never made it to the Government’s agenda?

Sugary drink taxes, fat taxes, fruits and vege subsidies, removing GST from healthy staple foods; scientists and health professionals are constantly making calls for these fiscal policies to be put on the government’s agenda.

After all, spending taxpayer money to prevent obesity, heart disease and diabetes is better than spending taxpayer money on preventable medical bills.

Nipping the problem in the bud is better than calling an ambulance at the bottom of the hill, right?

But the issue of food taxes and subsidies is a polarising political hot potato. A scorching potato in fact, that no politician wants to hold on to for too long if they also want to hold on to their job.

Ideologically speaking, it’s against National’s core values of having a small government, being business friendly and promoting personal freedom. Doing anything to hamper the processed food and beverage industry leaves the Government in a rather awkward position when it comes to having drinks and canapés with its corporate mates.

Labour is also stuck in an ideological corner. While there’s nothing like a good new tax to get Labour smiling, putting financial pressure on low income earners, exasperating inequality, is a big no-no.

Researchers seem to be divided over whether taxes/subsidies, and thus price, is a strong enough factor to change behaviour. So in many ways it’s too risky for Labour to take on a policy that risks further marginalising the most vulnerable.

I see the political problems brought about by this topic as being similar to that of coal mining.    

We all know coal mining is the dirtiest way to generate energy, but National can’t make a stand against it because that would be interfering with the free market, and Labour needs to stay silent on the environmental impact, as the party’s roots stem back to representing working class miners.

So where does this leave the scientists and health professionals calling for the Government to put its money where its mouth is when it comes to combatting obesity, heart disease and diabetes?

Frustrated, yet hopeful.

Science backs food taxes and subsidies

Auckland University Professor of Population Nutrition and Global Health, Boyd Swinburn, says “I haven’t seen any signals out of the government that it’s prepared to take fiscal policy seriously.

“If it wants to get serious about childhood obesity, then it’s going to have to implement some serious policies.”

Swinburn’s colleagues at Auckland and Otago Universities have just published a report in conjunction with Oxford University, that found about 2400 lives could be saved a year if we put a 20% tax on our saltiest and fattiest foods, and if the government subsidised fruit and vegetables by 20%.

The report, Effects of Health-Related Food Taxes and Subsidies on Mortality from Diet-Related Disease in New Zealand: An Econometric-Epidemiologic Modelling Study, also concludes the poorest will be better off financially.

Researchers, funded by the Health Research Council of New Zealand and the British Heart Foundation, say the losses consumers suffer by paying higher taxes, would be offset by the savings they’d make when buying subsidised food.

Politicians won’t touch a food tax with a barge pole

The Minister of Health, Jonathan Coleman, has voiced his opposition to a food tax on a number of occasions, saying it simply doesn’t work.

He responded to this particular study by telling the NZ Herald he wouldn’t comment until the government’s "work programme in this area" was complete.

The Food and Grocery Council’s chief executive, Katherine Rich, responded by telling Radio New Zealand that taxing staple items would put them out of the reach of many New Zealanders.

She highlighted the fact the foods targeted by the tax proposed in the study include items such as eggs, milk and bread.

This would inflate the price of these foods by 35% if you implement a 20% tax on top of GST.

She said following the tobacco taxation model for food wouldn’t work unless the tax was levied at a much higher rate than the proposed 20%.

"The tobacco model doesn't work for food because people can give up smoking – they can't give up food.”

Corporates vs academics

While Rich certainly raises some key points, which I believe highlight some holes in the model used in the study, the influence lobbyists like her have on the government can’t be ignored.

Rich – a former National MP – heads the trade body for tobacco, alcohol and big food companies, but also sits on the board of the government’s Health Promotion Agency, which decides how New Zealanders should make decisions about leading a healthy life.

While this may come as no surprise, and the conflict of interest may not concern you, the thing that gets me is that there’s much more money at stake if the Government grinds Rich’s gears, compared to upseting the university professors.

As Shaun Hendy, an Auckland University physics professors, told me in a Double Shot interview, the situation is exacerbated as scientists are often gagged from speaking out about issues of public importance, due to corporate arrangements.

Swinburn said, “They [the Government] have signalled they’d like to do something serious about childhood obesity, so there will have to be some payoff between corporate wealth and children’s health. You can’t expect the junk food industry to keep making high levels of profits, while bringing down childhood obesity.”

He said we’d be facing the same problem if Labour were in power, as the food industry’s influence would be the same.

I asked Labour’s spokesperson for Health, Annette King, what she thought about the latest food tax/subsidy report, and she said, “It has to be based on really good evidence”.

When asked whether research done by New Zealand’s top universities, as well as Oxford, was solid enough evidence, she said she wasn’t going to commit to a stance on the matter.

Instead King vaguely suggested decreasing the sugar content in foods. This sounds good in theory but I wish her luck telling Watties to change the recipe of its good old Kiwi tomato sauce!

Debate clouded by politics

I haven’t done enough research or crunched enough numbers to conclude how taxes and subsidies could be used to make our society healthier.

I am however fairly confident corporate interests are clouding frank discussion on the topic and keeping it well away from the Government’s agenda.

What us constituents can do to change this, is show that our views aren’t confined to the classic National / Labour stereotypes I outlined above.

National voters – are there not business opportunities in the healthy food industry? Have taxes on alcohol hampered your personal freedom that much that you’ve said no to buying that bottle of pinot you’d really like and can afford?

Labour voters – how do you feel about society telling you that you’re so uneducated and fiscally irresponsible that you’ll keep opting to buy unhealthy food, even if it’s more expensive than healthy food?

We're going to have to change our attitudes, if we want our politicians to change theirs'. 

We welcome your help to improve our coverage of this issue. Any examples or experiences to relate? Any links to other news, data or research to shed more light on this? Any insight or views on what might happen next or what should happen next? Any errors to correct?

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Crack me up. Do you need GOVT's intervention to improve your diet?

A pack of fish'n'chip + coke or a Mac/KFC meal are already more expensive than buying and cooking vege and red meat yourselves.

It is personal choice thing or just a part of evolution. you know the real mental/educational/lifestyle gap NZ has to deal with. It's not just economic/income divide. kind of a problem with Western countries, especially if they're success, life gets to easy, too soft, and many people expect really basic things to be done for them.

Unless something changes consumers food purchasing decisions the future health costs are going to balloon out dramatically - in the example of diabetics alone -

National's inaction just shows the downside of a 3 year government - as soon as they get elected they are virtually smiling for the cameras getting ready for the next election - no hard decisions will ever get made. Better a benevolent dictatorship as per Singapore's example that can take the long view.

"...research suggests that additional health costs from obesity are offset by reduced costs elsewhere, partly because obese people live shorter lives."

Researchers, funded by the Health Research Council of New Zealand and the British Heart Foundation, say the losses consumers suffer by paying higher taxes, would be offset by the savings they’d make when buying subsidised food.

Yeah right. Some truly epic leaps of assumption need to be made to achieve that outcome.

reducing stress by lowering taxes would help with physical and mental issues too.

I'd rather see cross subsidisation, taken from highly processed foods, applied to basic food supplies (rice, beans, leafy greens)

ok: not directly relevant and is a Pagan Site. but this person has some good food ideas:

Until anyone can show any REAL science (chemistry etc.) that fat is actually fattening then I will never believe it is; and, in fact, would happily fight the stupid tax in the courts.

Carbs are however very fattening (Sugar/Processed food etc.) but John is more likely put a tax on fat than food that actually makes you fat; he won't upset his mates now; will he...

Some guys went to the and were advised by the "morons from the ministry" to take fat (as they had been advised by some lobby group that all fat people were FAT and it has the most calories so MUST be fattening). They boiled down and "ate" the fat; and after a short while they had to give up the attempt.

2nd attempt and looked at some actual science and took mostly sugar bars for the energy...

You can guess the outcome.

Don't fall for this rubbish.... The human body is a VERY VERY complicated system! It cannot be simplified down to calories.

Technically, all food makes you fat.

Hi Dave. Im not sure if you were joking around or not, but i see an old myth being dragged out that that could use an update.

Fat storage is a function of insulin charging through your blood (and your insulin sensitivity/resistance).

If you are on a low carb or ketogenic diet, then your insulin will be very low (and you insulin sensativity=high which is good). For such a person, they can consume huge amounts of fat, all day every day, and not get fat. I can provide a ton of links if you would like.

In conclusion, all food does not make you fat.

if you eat carbs and fat, the fat will be stored.

if you eat low carb your body will eventually burn the fat, but its not a clean burn. and can damage your liver and blood vessels, even threaten your life.

eat high carbs, low fat; your insulin and liver response will go all out of whack. attention levels will shorten. stress will tend to burn you out faster. energy levels with spike rapidly and then drop sharply.
Caffeine will make this worse, and has a physical addiction factor.

Should just give us skinny folk a tax rebate....that would provide an incentive to lose weight without the argument over food groups

Good idea. Should give folks that do not use hospital and public health funding on a regular basis rebates.

I have free weight set down by the river, BYO bag.

A potentially good article spoilt by the use of political stereotypes in it's description. Why the need?

For goodness sake when is this paradigm that saturated fat and cholesterol are the cause of atherosclerosis going to be shoved in the dustbin where it belongs.
It's well and truly discredited, although the mainstream medical fraternity still has to catch up.

Watch this 13 min video where 8 doctors disclaim the theory. It's well worth your time.

Eight Doctors Talk About The Myths of Cholesterol and Saturated Fat

Present day science shows that not only are cholesterol and saturated fat not bad for human health but they are actually be beneficial. The real primary cause of heart disease is inflammation from a highly inflammatory diet. The main culprit being sugar and sugar forming foods such as processed carbohydrates.

The Doctors in the Video:
Dr. Stephen Sinatra, M.D., F.A.C.C.
Dr. Johnny Bowden, PH.D., C.N.S.
Dr. Peter Attia, M.D.
Dr. Michael R. Eades, M.D.
Dr. Mary D. Eades, M.D.
Dr. Mary Enig, PH.D
Dr. Al Sears, M.D.
Dr. Donald W. Miller, Jr., M.D.
(Dr. Miller is professor of surgery, cardiothoracic division, Univ. Washington)

There should never be a fat tax, because fat is not the problem. Excess fat is just removed.
Carbohydrates trigger insulin, which gives that tired feeling.
That triggers the conversion of carbohydrate into fat in your liver then that fat gets stored away.

After years of going to the gym daily, and eating what I thought was healthy food without success I read this book (which is based to scientific studies), and lost 20 Kgs:-

Which basically boils down to... eat a low carbohydrate diet.
High Intensity Interval Training, and intermittent fasting also works.

Ridiculous article, as mentioned fat is NOT the problem. Infact it is essential. We had five kids, all pretty standard kiwi models, and to get them through a day of schooling plus their sport you had to feed them fat and protein. One of the best lunches was to make a huge fat full lasagne for tea and they would eat the leftovers for lunch. Notably they struggled to stop other kids from eating it, wonder why. Bacon eggs and sausages for breakfast, etc etc. surprise surprise they're as lean as.
Yes I love fat.
Sugar not so much.
Katherine Rich, not at all, loath entirely.

I wonder if our fear of saturated fat can explain the irrational behaviour of many of our present leaders? Our brains and nervous systems are primarily the "terrible, terrible" saturated fat.

"After the AHA (American Heart Association) advised the public to eat less saturated fat and switch to vegetable oils for a "healthy heart" in 1961, Americans changed their diets. Now these oils represent 7% to 8% of all calories in our diet, up from nearly zero in 1900, the biggest increase in consumption of any type of food over the past century.

This shift seemed like a good idea at the time, but it brought many potential health problems in its wake. In those early clinical trials, people on diets high in vegetable oil were found to suffer higher rates not only of cancer but also of gallstones. And, strikingly, they were more likely to die from violent accidents and suicides. Alarmed by these findings, the National Institutes of Health convened researchers several times in the early 1980s to try to explain these "side effects," but they couldn't. (Experts now speculate that certain psychological problems might be related to changes in brain chemistry caused by diet, such as fatty-acid imbalances or the depletion of cholesterol.)"

The BBC, a couple of years ago, produced a study by Oxbridge scientists that proved absolutely that ALL fat people are fat because they eat too much and exercise too little. That's it.

You've been misinformed.

is that why anorexia people are fat, and so are prisoners of war/detention camp people.

Those are corner cases.

indeed they are, but they lie within the defined area and demonstrate the principles involved.
There is a lot of room in the middle, so best to define your areas a bit more carefully.

In the Us Marines, candidates underweight are given double ratio, those overweight, given reduced (even half ration). At intake, the survivors, all in range. however the process skews data.

Finding where things break and shift is more information useful.
hence the bodies preference for utilising carbs over fats.
but we do have gluten and corn/fructose and lactose considerations, as well as caffeine - as they all have macro effect on gut behaviour, and not just in sensitive individuals.
also an effect is timing, Sumo eat then sleep as this enables them to add weight fast. Miltary and others exercise lightly after eating to ensure longer performance and don't see the same weight gain effects that the sumo stables do.

also aerobic, vs periods of anaerobic, and duration for exercise. lean muscle ratio increases exercise effect. Debate still rages about women plateauing in weight loss through exercise whether it's hormonal or muscle or intake related.

No guido, I have not been misinformed. Watched it all on BBC in England myself (you can probably find it in their archives). There is no doubt - proof absolute.

It's because this isn't a "real" government as such, it's just a bunch of people who are paid by the highest bidding co-operations, and those co-operations are cynically rewarded for their support by having all the laws made by this government tailored around them, it's a government better described as a joke.

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