During the first major debate of the election campaign, the leaders of the Labour Party and the National Party were asked for their position on a sugar tax. Both rejected it, and this was reinforced by the Minister of Health in RNZ’s ‘Off the Shelf’ series, in which Guyon Espiner looks at “the quiet struggle to stop us eating ourselves sick”.

I sat down for an hour with Guyon for this series and experienced first-hand his surprise at evidence the industry was working towards better health outcomes, its willingness to play its part, the voluntary measures being pursued, and the rejection that profit was the sole motivator of the businesspeople I work with every day.

I cited the Food Industry Taskforce called for by Ministers in 2018. NZFGC took on the important role as secretariat for the cross-industry group. A report from the taskforce, containing 51 recommendations of what industry could do to combat obesity, was delivered to the Government in December that year.

Obesity is a risk factor for type 2 diabetes and other serious health issues. In 2021, Diabetes NZ estimated type 2 diabetes costs New Zealand $2.1 billion and would increase to $3.5b by 2040 if unchecked. Cost is one dimension, but the impact on people’s health, including shortened life expectancy, risk of ending up on dialysis, and amputations, is serious and gruesome. The ripple effects for families, communities, the creaking health system, and the country as a whole is significant too. Type 2 diabetes is a preventable and reversible illness, and we need to do better.

So, what happened to that 150-page report? Well, 11 months after it was delivered, in November 2019, a response was received from the Government that indicated more engagement would take place in 2020. There was a meeting the following February, and then we all remember what happened in March 2020, and it’s understandable the focus and resource wasn’t there for a period from Ministers and overworked health officials.

Industry continued to work on implementing the recommendations, and in December 2021, three years after the initial report to the Government, NZFGC provided an update on progress of the 51 recommendations.

I was heartened to read in that report of the progress made, and surprised and disappointed the response from the Minister was a one-page letter. She thanked NZFGC for the update, saying she was glad she could rely on our ongoing support as a representative of food suppliers doing “valuable” work in this area and that it was pleasing to see industry working to reverse the worrying trends. She said further engagement would take place the following year. I cannot find any evidence of further engagement on this topic.

Importantly, the NZFGC report recommended the Government urgently conduct National Nutrition Surveys of children and adults, noting these hadn’t been done since 2002 and 2009 respectively.

I remain perplexed as to why there still isn’t funding to complete this vital work. The cost is estimated to be around $10-$15m – a fraction of the $2b cost to implement the removal of GST from fruit and vegetables, and around the cost of a small or medium road roundabout.

I think we know now that the evidence for the removal of GST achieving a meaningful difference to the cost of living and prompting people to eat more healthily is woefully weak. And though we do need to fund good infrastructure when facing such a massive health challenge, we also need robust, scientifically reliable data to make sound policy decisions and measure the effect of interventions.

My position that a sugar tax and other regulation isn’t the answer may not align with other voices in this debate but, frankly, if both major parties have rejected it then we need to move on and work together on measures we can agree will make a difference and can be implemented.

Listen/watch the Off the Shelf series here

Read the Food Industry Taskforce report here

(originally published in FMCG Business)