NARGON: Public Health Goes Political

NARGON: Public Health Goes Political

Trina Snow Executive Director, Nargon
Trina Snow
Executive Director, Nargon

In recent months, the traditionally dry and academic field of public health policy has rapidly become a heated political issue. Virtually every day the New Zealand media is covering a growing number of studies which call for a tax on certain food ingredients (usually fat, salt, sugar or some combination of the three), or for limits on where and when some foods can be sold to consumers (usually to children and young people near schools). At times, the arguments have become quite personal.

On one side, public health academics claim that right-wing lobbyists and bloggers in the pay of large food companies are being lined up to attack them in the media as soon as each study is released. To them, the so-called “Toxic Trio” of prominent lobbyists arrayed against them is simply an extension of the “Dirty Politics” narrative and, perhaps unsurprisingly, involves many of the same people.

In response, the other side of the debate argues that selected academics have a very political agenda regarding food and food companies that is simply not supported by either science or economics. Because most of the research in question is taxpayer funded, bloggers such as Cameron Slater from Whaleoil have tried to dub their opponents as academic “troughers”.

NARGON has long advocated that policy should be based on solid evidence. In too many instances politicians are keen to be seen “doing something” without considering whether what they are doing will actually make a difference. Health Minister Jonathan Coleman has, to his credit, said an emphatic no to a sugar tax. He believes that action is needed relating to the manner that products high in sugar are marketed but contends that the best way forward is voluntary action by the food industry. NARGON would agree with this assessment but would add consumer education and personal responsibility to the mix.

In recent articles, the example of Mexico has been cited as “proof” that a sugar tax can work. Researchers from the University of Auckland used Mexico when they called for a 20% tax on bread, breakfast cereals, processed meat, fresh beef, lamb, hogget, poultry, all take-away foods, butter, cakes, biscuits, cheese, cream, pies, pizza, sauces, condiments, milk, ice cream, yoghurt and eggs.

Independent lobby group the Taxpayers Union has pointed out that while the Auckland researchers used polling data from Mexico indicating that fizzy drink consumption dropped 12 percent since the tax was introduced, actual sale figures report just a 0.2 percent drop, with poor people now paying more to consume the same amount of sugar. The bottom line is that people lie to pollsters but sales data always tells the truth.

Christopher Snowdon, of Britain’s Institute of Economic Affairs, argued “a sugar tax is attractive to politicians because it allows them to engage in mass pick-pocketing with a sense of moral superiority.” The only winner from the Mexican sugar tax has been their Treasury. NARGON believes obesity is a serious issue requiring serious solutions.

By Trina Snow

Executive Director, Nargon

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