17 Mar 2016

Will NZ follow UK's lead on sugar tax?

5:05 pm on 17 March 2016

Anti-sugar campaigners are hoping a new UK sugar tax on soft drinks will make the idea more palatable to New Zealand politicians.

The British chancellor George Osborne announced the surprise new tax during his Budget 2016 speech today.

It will be introduced from 2018 and is expected to raise about $NZ1 billion. The money would be used to fund sports in schools.

Soft drinks

The UK is to tax soft drinks. Photo: 123RF

Nelson dentist and New Zealand Dental Association spokesman Rob Beaglehole said he was "ecstatic" to hear the news and hoped it would pave the way for New Zealand to follow in the UK's footsteps.

Dr Beaglehole said he was hoping the celebrity chef Jamie Oliver could encourage a similar u-turn from the New Zealand government, as he did the British one.

Mr Oliver set up an e-petition backing the tax in the UK that got 150,000 supporters.

The chef, restauranteur and TV personality said the change in the UK should send ripples across the world.

Celebrity chef Jamie Oliver set up a petition backing the tax, and has introduced a sugar levy in his restaurants.

Celebrity chef Jamie Oliver set up a petition backing the tax in the UK. Photo: AFP

"Many countries like New Zealand are on the brink of taking action on obesity in the form of a sugary drink tax. Let's see if they can now follow Britain's lead," Mr Oliver said.

Dr Beaglehole said he hoped the announcement today would change the minds of Health Minister Jonathan Coleman and Prime Minister John Key.

But the government says New Zealand won't be following the United Kingdom's lead any time soon.

Mr Coleman said what had happened in the UK did not change the government's position on sugar tax.

"It's up to every government to make its' own policy," he said.

"We'll keep a watch on the evidence but there isn't the conclusive evidence currently that a tax on sugary drinks will actually decrease obesity."

Mr Key has backed Dr Coleman.

"We think our studies will be finished by about the end of 2017, so we are looking at what's happening there and what's happening around the world. But overall we're not convinced that it would have a material impact on obesity," he said.

But the Green Party's health spokesperson Kevin Hague said there was evidence and the government needed to stop protecting the junk food industry.

"The question is whether the Government's resistance to a tax on sugary drinks is based on what Jonathan Coleman says - that we just don't have the evidence - or whether their reason is more that they're in the pocket of the sugar industry. I suspect the latter," he said.

Dr Coleman said there was no single solution that would fix obesity and it was working with the private sector, schools and families to tackle the problem.

Jonathan Coleman during caucus run 1/03/16.

Health Minister Dr Jonathan Coleman. Photo: RNZ / Alexander Robertson

However, Mr Beaglehole said Mr Osborne had discounted introducing a sugar tax only a month before his Budget announcement.

"George Osborne knew there was an issue and he would be embarrassed if he didn't do anything about it.

"We are so happy that this has happened, it's a great step in the right direction. A tax on sugary drinks will work. We know it works in Mexico, in other countries and it will also work in New Zealand."

Dr Beaglehole said he had been in touch with Mr Oliver.

"I'm trying to get him to come over to New Zealand to help us out. He really wants to make a difference to children's' health and one way he can do this is come over here and help convince our politicians a sugary drink tax is something that is not only politically palatable but something the population of New Zealand urgently wants," he said.

The biggest source of sugar in New Zealanders' diets came from sugary drinks, he said.

"This is why the government must act, and act urgently," Dr Beaglehole said.

An Auckland academic agreed that the UK's move will open the door for New Zealand to make a change.

University of Auckland senior research fellow and the founder of Fighting Sugar in Softdrinks (FIZZ), Gerhard Sundborn, said he believed Mr Osborne's announcement would make it easier for New Zealand to introduce a tax.

"Politicians have said they would be watching the evidence and that the door isn't open on a sugar-sweetened beverage tax.

"But if the UK government has it will make our government feel more comfortable about adopting one as well," he said.

If a tax was adopted by New Zealand then the money raised should be used to replace sponsorship of sporting events and children's' activities that were currently funded by the beverage and fast food industry, Mr Sundburn said.

Britain's sugar tax will be imposed on companies according to the volume of the sugar-sweetened drinks they produce or import.

There will be two bands - one for total sugar content above 5g per 100 millilitres and a second, higher band for the most sugary drinks with more than 8g per 100 millilitres.

Pure fruit juices and milk-based drinks would be excluded and the smallest producers would have an exemption from the scheme.

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