Is sugar tax on or off the table? New Zealand Health Ministry continues deliberation despite government ruling it out

By Pearly Neo contact

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New documentation has highlighted that the New Zealand Ministry of Health is still actively deliberating a sugar tax, even though the government as a whole has already ruled it out. ©Getty Images
New documentation has highlighted that the New Zealand Ministry of Health is still actively deliberating a sugar tax, even though the government as a whole has already ruled it out. ©Getty Images

Related tags: New zealand, sugar tax, Health

New documentation has highlighted that the New Zealand Ministry of Health is still actively deliberating a sugar tax, even though the government as a whole has already ruled it out.

According to new information brought to the fore by political party ACT, Health Minister David Clark is still looking at a document prepared by the ministry that shows they are actively investigating it’​.

“A sugar tax would punish the majority of responsible New Zealanders for the sins of an irresponsible minority,”​ said ACT Leader David Seymour in a formal statement.

He described this as ‘disingenuous’​, especially because ‘[Health Minister] David Clark said in September last year that: ‘This Government has ruled out any new taxes in this term of office and so we're not working on that’, referring to a sugar tax’.

Although Seymore and ACT opined that this means the government is ‘moving closer towards the idea of a sugar tax’​, Clark responded via a statement to the New Zealand Herald​ that he had ‘only received the final version of this draft document recently’​ and had ‘yet to consider it’​.

He added that the document prepared by the ministry explored potential methods of dealing with obesity, and included the feasibility of a sugar tax as well as the reduction of restaurant portion sizes.

Clark did however reinforce the government’s previous stance on sugar tax, and that it would not be implemented in ‘this term of Parliament’​.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern had also stated in September last year that: “The Government is not actively considering a tax on sugar or sugary beverages at this time.”

More than just sugar tax

The document was obtained by ACT via the Official Information Act (OIA), and mainly focuses on the improvement of long-term health outcomes.

In addition, the document mentioned areas for possible ‘future work’, including ‘taxes, levies and minimum prices’.

Other measures mentioned include mandatory health ratings and sugar labelling, reformulating processed foods, restricting the access of processed foods around or near schools and workplaces, and managing marketing, advertising and price promotions.

That said, the Otago Daily Times ​said that other OIA documents revealed a May 2 memo to Clark in 2018 that mentioned the Ministry of Health was ‘scoping work to explore the feasibility and impacts of regulatory options, such as a sugar tax’​, in addition to other regulatory options.

It added that the ministry had also ‘produced an analysis of interventions and potential regulatory changes, which could increase the availability of “less-processed foods and beverages”​, although “detailed implementation”​ would only be if the ministry decided on further investigation.

So is it a yes or no?

The sugar tax debate has been raging on in New Zealand for some months, but a conclusion seems far from in sight​.

On one side of the coin, the New Zealand Taxpayers’ Union is a firm opponent of the taxation of sugar in the country, and released a report supporting its argument titled ‘The Bitter Truth: Why don’t sugar taxes work?’.

“[Sugar taxes] are remarkably ineffective as a way of getting people to reduce their consumption of sugary drinks, let alone reducing their consumption of calories or lowering their body weight,”​ said Christopher Snowdon, Head of Lifestyle Economics, Institute of Economic Affairs in the report.

New Zealand Food and Grocery Council CEO Katherine Rich concurred, saying that: “​Sugar taxes have not worked to reduce obesity in any countries where they have been implemented. Not one.​

“When you look at where sugar taxes have been put in place they tend to be countries where the government is either struggling to balance its books or has difficulty collecting income taxes.​”

Conversely, some academics are strong supporters of the tax,​ with researchers from the University of Otago having released their own research saying that ‘self-regulation is not workin​​g’​ and that a sugar tax is ‘justified’​.

“New Zealand relies on industry self-regulation and has called for better labelling so individuals can take responsibility for their own sugar intake,”​ ​said lead author Dr Kirsten Robertson.

“[The onus with self-regulation] falls on individuals to regulate the quantity and serving size of sugar they consume from SSBs. However, the present findings show SSB consumers are less likely than others to try to avoid sugar or calories.​

“Thus measures to increase individual responsibility such as better labelling as recommended by the New Zealand government are unlikely to be effective.​

“[Given] the current findings showing that SSB consumers show limited healthy eating behaviour (or indeed control of sugar intake), we feel a sugar tax is justified. We therefore support the sugar tax recommendation.”​

Celebrity chef Jamie Oliver is also a sugar tax supporter, having previously filmed a video imploring Clark to implement it​ as a ‘tax for good’​.

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