Answers to Fairfax Media on sugar and obesity

Katherine Rich this week answered questions from Fairfax Media on obesity, applying sugar taxes on sodas, and a response to criticism from an academic in the US on FGC's comments on the effectiveness of Mexico's soda tax. The resulting article contained few of those answers so we publish the full Q&A. A link to the article is at the end.

What is the FGC's position on a tax to reduce consumption of sugar sweetened beverages in New Zealand?

Water should be the main source of refreshment for people, but sometimes they like to drink other sorts of beverages that might contain sugar – such as tea, coffee, milk, smoothies, fruit juice and carbonated drinks. Everybody is different but, on average, an adult needs about 8000 kilojoules of energy per day, so what people eat and drink in a day needs to take into account all kilojoules. FGC supports the Ministry of Health’s Eating and Activity Guidelines which remind people that it’s important to limit the consumption of foods and drinks with too much sugar.

What is this position based on?

Ministry of Health nutrition guidelines, principles of good nutrition, and reflection of current academic understanding that moderation, variety and balance are all parts of a healthy diet, as is movement and activity.

If there was evidence the tax could reduce consumption would the FGC support such a tax? Why/why not?

There is no evidence anywhere that low level sales or excise taxes on soda (as just one of many sugar sweetened drinks) have worked anywhere in the world to reduce consumption in the medium to long term. These sorts of taxes raise a lot of revenue precisely because demand doesn’t change much. 

What alternative measures would the FGC propose to help reduce obesity rates in NZ?

We support current government, community and industry programmes to educate people about the importance of a balanced diet and activity. Many of our member companies have and are continuing to reformulate high-volume products to reduce salt, fat and sugar, so there are more choices today in supermarkets than at any time. Many of our members have workplace health and wellness programmes. Others fund activities in the community, provide nutrition advice and have developed nutrition and exercise education programmes. We also are right behind the Health Star Rating scheme which enables consumers to see at a glance what’s in food and what’s a healthier choice within categories in supermarkets. Many companies have reformulated products to enable them to achieve a higher star rating and this is continuing. There are now around 1000 food products with health stars on our supermarket shelves.

Is there a role for the food industry to help tackle the problem of obesity – and if so, what is that?

Of course. See the examples above. Industry plays a role alongside government, communities, families and individuals in encouraging healthier lifestyles for New Zealanders, and particularly better outcomes for children.

Also, health economist at the Gillings School of Public Health, University of North Carolina, Dr Shu Wen Ng made a comment about an article on the FGC website which says recent Nielsen data showed the SSB tax in Mexico had not worked. She said, "It is inappropriate to simply be looking at these aggregate/total sale numbers, and the NZFGC is simply spinning the statistics in a way that appear to work to support their argument."  Would you like to provide a response to this? 

The Nielsen scan data for 2013-15 gives the most accurate and full picture of what has occurred in Mexico. She is either ill-informed or is being deliberately misleading if she’s saying that aggregated sales data is not helpful to understanding what has occurred in Mexico. What better way is there than looking at the sales data, covering 65% of all sales in Mexico, to reflect the total volumes of what has been sold and consumed?

Dr Ng’s allegation that I’ve presented sales data from Mexico in a biased way is nonsense and unfair.  We are both quoting Nielsen data, just different sorts.  She knows her paper was also based on more limited 2014 Nielsen data from a collection of Mexican homes. I’m quoting a more complete and updated Nielsen data-set to December 2015 which covers all scanned sales in Mexico. 

The data is clear. While sugar-sweetened soda sales declined by 3% in 2014 they gained 3% in 2015.

I can’t fathom why she wants to lob personal attacks from across the Pacific. Perhaps she’s disappointed that her academic paper using 2014 data, globally claimed as proof that a sugar tax works, has been superseded by real life. That doesn’t excuse unprofessional comments and her suggestion that while her Nielsen data should be accepted, FGC’s Nielsen data should be dismissed. Her suggestion that gold-standard Nielsen data is valid only if it’s peer-reviewed and manipulated by a handful of academics is arrogant to say the least. Nielsen is a globally respected data measurement company that has stronger review mechanisms than many universities. Her comment that figures should be manipulated for population and economic growth over such a tiny timeframe is a red herring. It’s a shame that Dr Ng has resorted to making allegations about spinning data when FGC has presented the Nielsen data unchanged and accurately.  The data is the data and it clearly shows that while there was a dip in sales in 2014, sales soon returned to pre-tax levels and that’s why tax revenues increased. The total annual amount collected from the soda tax in 2015 was higher than 2014. Post the tax all that has changed is that people are paying more for both sugared and non-sugared sodas (including bottled water) and the Mexican Government has an extra 20 billion pesos in the general fund. On average, sugar sodas remain much cheaper than non-sugar sodas, so the tax is not sending any price signal to consumers at all.

Fairfax article (as published in The Press and in other newspapers and websites)