Katherine Rich: Plunging the depths of the obesity argument

31 October 2013

When Christchurch supermarket owner Phillip Blackburn was likened to a drug dealer for wanting to sell beer and wine in his newly built New World, it plunged new depths in a debate about what can and can’t be sold in supermarkets.

It was during a Liquor Licensing Authority hearing in December 2011 that this extraordinary claim was made by Professor Doug Sellman, a local resident who happened also to be Director of the National Addiction Centre at the University of Otago.

What he said precisely was that “given that alcohol is a Class B equivalent drug, a new liquor licence would therefore elevate the new manager, Mr Phillip Blackburn, to being the biggest drug dealer in Ilam”.

Cruel, damaging, unthinking, ridiculous – but more importantly, untrue comments aimed at a supermarket owner who had worked his way up from stocking shelves in his father’s supermarket to running his own with his wife and four young children. Their motto of making their store a “fun and welcoming place to shop and work” hardly the place of a drug dealer!

But it didn’t end there. Sellman also slammed supermarkets in general and New World in particular:Although disguised as a large family-friendly grocery store, supermarkets are in fact primarily mega-liquor stores which also sell grocery items. New World supermarkets have been shown to be the biggest advertisers of alcohol in the four main daily newspapers in New Zealand, which indicates they are probably the single biggest drug dealers in New Zealand.” You can almost hear the pitch in his voice rising as the absurdities flow.

The fundamental issue is, of course, that drug dealers deal illegal drugs, and beer and wine is sold legally from thousands of outlets. That Phillip Blackburn and others got their licences, and people up and down the country can continue to buy a dozen beers or a bottle of red with their weekly shopping is testament to the absurdities of that day. Sanity finally prevailed.

This was all brought to mind the other week while I was skimming a book by economists Gareth Morgan and Geoff Simmons, which discussed “unhealthy eating” and ways we could change our bad eating habits.

This no doubt well-intentioned book does a fair job or covering most of the issues – from eating too much high-energy food and not exercising enough, to education and what to avoid, and then what we can do about it, both as individuals and collectively as a country. There are some good and sensible suggestions in it.

But there are also some comments that are either ill-informed or just plain stupid. One comment about supermarkets and dairies caught my eye and reminded me of the Sellman comments. In a section about how what we feed children in their formative years can have a big effect on them in their later life, the book discusses how the immediate community in which they live can have a significant impact. So far, so good.

But then it goes off the rails: “Currently, takeways and dairies cluster around schools, particularly in the poorest neighbourhoods.  Primary schools seem to attract more stores. The upshot of this is that the average child in Auckland has to walk less than 350 metres from the school gate to the nearest dairy. Given what we know about the impact of sugary, fatty and salty food on the developing brain, it is hard not to draw a comparison with drug lords targeting the youngest and most vulnerable members of our society to get them hooked.”

It seemed like the authors had come across Sellman’s press release.

Their solution wasn’t much better: change the law so it’s harder to open a dairy (or a supermarket, for that matter) near a school. “The Resource Management Act ensures that each development assesses the environmental impact [of a new shop] before proceeding, but there is no such consideration of health impact … This is a glaring oversight in our current approach to planning.”

For a start, the notion that food outlets are somehow deliberately clustered around schools is wide of the mark. Dairies, particularly Four Squares, are in communities where people live, to serve them at weekends and after hours as well as during the day. Schools often happen to be part of those communities.

But the idea that getting rid of them from near schools will help solve the obesity problem is just plain bizarre.

Another word for some of these stores is “convenience stores” – because that’s what they are. Clearly, economists are seldom those doing the morning scramble to fill kids’ lunch boxes – those (usually mums) who have to sometimes rush off to the corner dairy or supermarket to grab a last-minute apple or muesli bar to pop in with the sandwiches. Yes, these shops sell healthy, nutritious food, too, not that you’d believe it reading some of this stuff. It’s not all sugar and fat and salt. Getting rid of them would be an inconvenience to the whole community. These stores are often the hubs of our communities, providing many services.

As for likening shop owners to “drug lords targeting the youngest and most vulnerable” – I’m almost lost for words. But not quite.

I’ve met many supermarket operators over the years, like Phillip Blackburn, and they’re all good, solid Kiwis – often husband and wife teams who employ hard-working, honest people, and who sponsor local sports teams, donate to local charities, and get involved in the community. I could be wrong, but I doubt that many drug dealers join Rotary, the school PTA, donate education scholarships, or develop healthy-eating programmes in schools. 

How dare these people compare brightly lit and clean supermarkets, offering good, honest products and shelves of fresh fruit and veges, with dark and seedy tinny houses!

It’s time for a bit of decency in this argument. And I’d like to see some of these economists do a decent day’s work in a supermarket. Perhaps they’d develop some respect.