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Sweet, sweet sugar… tax

It’s pretty big news in the nutrition world – the UK has announced it will be introducing a tax on sugary drinks in two years’ time. So what about us here in New Zealand? Should we follow suit and do the same?

Sugary drinks and health
Angela Berrill

Angela Berrill

National Nutrition Advisor

As a registered dietitian, I am passionate about educating people about the importance of health and nutrition. I believe in finding ways for people to enjoy food while also nurturing their bodies.

There’s no denying New Zealand is in the midst of an obesity epidemic. While obesity is a complex issue, most nutrition experts agree that too much added sugar is not good for anyone. General healthy eating recommendations, including those provided by the Heart Foundation, have traditionally recommended that adults and children cut back on foods or drinks that are high in ‘added’ sugar and have little nutritional value, such as soft drinks or cordials.

While the association between high intakes of added sugar and tooth decay and cavities is well known, evidence now clearly shows that sugar does affect body weight. This seems to be because we over-consume sugary foods and drinks, since they don’t fill us up. There is also strengthening evidence for an impact of sugar on other risk factors for heart disease such as cholesterol and triglycerides, and type 2 diabetes.

Based on the evidence about the detrimental impact of a high sugar diet, the World Health Organisation (WHO) now recommends that people should reduce their intakes of ‘free sugars’ to around 5 per cent of total energy to gain health benefits. ‘Free sugars’ includes sugars added to foods and beverages by the manufacturer, cook or consumer. It also includes sugars naturally present in honey, syrups, fruit juices and fruit juice concentrates. The amount recommend by the WHO equates to about six teaspoons for adults and five teaspoons for children. To put this into perspective, New Zealand adults consume approximately 29 teaspoons of sugar per day and children consume approximately 25 teaspoons. This is well over the recommendations. Beverages are the highest contributor to total sugar intake for Kiwi kids and the second highest contributor for adults.

Unfortunately, there is no silver bullet to solve the obesity epidemic. The causes of obesity are many and complex and a range of initiatives is needed. However, a good place to start is with a tax on sugar sweetened beverages (SSBs). Such an action takes a strong stance on a product which we know is a problem amongst children and vulnerable people. Not only is the consumption of SSBs a known contributor to obesity and some risk factors for heart disease but the reduced intake of SSBs is an important population health goal. Furthermore, New Zealand has the third highest rate of obesity in the OECD and many children suffer from tooth decay.

To put things in perspective, a can of fizzy drink could contain up to 10 teaspoons or 40 grams of sugar. 

While many people claim sugar taxes don’t work, research published in the British Medical Journal early this year showed that in Mexico[i], a 10 per cent increase in the price of taxed beverages was associated with a 12 per cent reduction in purchases of taxed beverages, and a 4 per cent increase in sales of non-taxed beverages.

We need only look at tobacco and alcohol to see that taxation works over the long-term, especially when it’s supported by a host of additional public health initiatives.

A sugary drinks tax by itself won't reverse New Zealand's obesity epidemic or put an end to tooth decay but it can be part of the solution. To help support the health of New Zealanders, the Heart Foundation supports a SSBs tax as one component of a range of measures needed to help combat obesity, type 2 diabetes, dental caries and other health issues. 

Additional measures to support a tax could include: action on healthy food in schools; controls on advertising of unhealthy foods to children; and community-based eating and activity initiatives. We recommend the revenue gained from this tax be spent on health and nutrition education to improve childhood nutrition and reduce childhood obesity. Surely, this is a positive step forward in not only promoting the health of Kiwis but also reducing our burden of disease.

You can find further information about sugar and the Heart Foundation’s position on sugar tax below:

[i]M Arantxa Colchero, Barry M Popkin, Juan A Rivera, Shu Wen Ng. Beverage purchases from stores in Mexico under the excise tax on sugar sweetened beverages: observational study. BMJ 2016;352:1-12.