19 Oct 2015

No sugar tax ahead for childhood obesity plan

10:15 pm on 19 October 2015

The government will not be introducing a sugar tax as part of a new plan to tackle childhood obesity, Health Minister Jonathan Coleman says.

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Studies assessing the impact of a tax on soft drinks have been inconclusive, Health Minister Jonathan Coleman said. Photo: RNZ / Diego Opatowski

The plan includes intervention for children as young as four.

Dr Coleman said its focus was on food, the environment and being active at each stage of life, starting with pregnancy and early childhood.

But he said there would be no tax on sugar because he believed it would be unworkable.

Dr Coleman said, while there had been debate about a tax on soft drinks, at the moment the evidence was inconclusive.

"So if you tax soft drinks, they've done some work in Mexico, they had a 9 percent tax, that showed a decrease in sales but they weren't clear if that was just a correlation or if there was direct causation.

"So there's some work being done at Waikato University, also University of North Carolina which is going to report later in 2017, so the evidence at the moment is definitely inconclusive."

Dr Coleman said the government remained open-minded about considering the evidence.

"But for the time being we're not doing a tax on soft drinks."

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Health Minister Jonathan Coleman said childhood obesity could cause some New Zealand children to live shorter lives than their parents. Photo: RNZ / Alexander Robertson

The government has no plan to force the food industry to lower the amount of sugar in food and beverages, he said.

"We need to talk to them about that over time, but they're very aware of the public pressure and one of the very key things that we brought in recently is the health star rating, so people are going to have very clearly visible descriptions in plain English on food packaging.

"It's voluntary initially but I think you'll find, you know, there's 200 or 300 products on the shelves already that have it."

One in nine children estimated to be obese

According to the Ministry of Health, New Zealand has the third highest adult obesity rate in the OECD and that is on the rise.

The ministry estimates one in nine children are obese, with a further two in the overweight category.

Dr Coleman said childhood obesity was a serious issue, which meant some New Zealand children could end up living shorter lives than their parents.

"Our plan focuses on children as that's where the evidence shows we can have the greatest influence. By focusing on children, we expect to also influence the whole family."

Under the new plan, 95 percent of children identified as obese in the B4 School Check will be referred to a health professional for clinical assessment and family-based nutrition, activity and lifestyle interventions.

The B4 School Check is a free health and development check for four-year-olds.

Dr Coleman said more than 58,600 children used the service in the last year and, of that, more than 1400 were referred on for obesity related support.

He said he expected that number to treble to more than 4000 a year by December 2017.

However, he acknowledged the current measure for obesity, the Body Mass Index (BMI), did not necessarily reflect how healthy someone was.

"Now you could take the All Blacks, they're all going to have BMIs that technically might make them look obese.

'So taking the individual, yep, it probably doesn't work but if you look at large population groups the evidence does support it."

He said part of the plan was also an agreement with the food industry about advertising.