Soda sales soar in Mexico after sugar tax!

May 10th, 2016 at 11:00 am by David Farrar

The WSJ reports:

Sales of soda are climbing two years after Mexico imposed a roughly 10% tax on sugary drinks …

Purchases, however, are rising in Mexico after an initial drop, making the country a key-growth market again for soda giants Coca-Cola Co. and PepsiCo Inc.

Underscoring the resiliency of sugary drinks, the tax of one peso per liter has raised more than $2 billion since January 2014, about a third more than the government expected.

The tax data is the best proxy for sales. So the sugar tax has raised lots of money but not decreased sales, let alone decreased obesity.

While that public-health campaign is long gone, soda makers continue to advertise their products heavily and say it is unfair to single out something representing less than 10% of daily caloric intake.

In NZ they are just 1.8% of daily calories yet the tax and tax brigade insist a tax on soda drinks would reduce obesity. It would be like trying to reduce alcohol consumption by only taxing vodka.

Coca-Cola Femsa SAB, the country’s largest Coke bottler, said last Wednesday that its Mexican soda volumes rose 5.5% in the first quarter from a year earlier. Arca Continental SAB, the No. 2 Coke bottler, reported soda volumes surged 11%.

The turnaround began last year, when Mexican soda-industry volume rose 0.5% after falling 1.9% in 2014, said data service Canadean.

So as is often the case a small initial impact, that then disappears and reverses.

Antisoda groups aren’t ready to declare the tax a failure and say sales got a boost from unusually warm weather.

Blame climate change!

Even the initial downturn only lowered the average Mexican’s daily caloric intake by 6 to 7 calories, or 0.2%, according to the study.

That is equal to around two extra minutes of walking per day. Yes, seriously.

Big food companies are saying eat less

May 4th, 2016 at 11:00 am by David Farrar

USA Today reports:

After spending years trying to convince consumers to buy more of their famous-name products, now some of the biggest players in the food industry are trying to get people to eat less of them.

Burgers are shrinking, cookies are becoming thinner and package sizes are getting smaller.

In at least one case, a company is telling customers to cut back on its more indulgent foods. Mars, maker of M&Ms and Uncle Ben’s rice, said earlier this month that it would start labeling some of its products to indicate that they should only be eaten occasionally, due to being higher in sugar, salt or fat.

Mars is the latest company to take this seemingly counterintuitive approach. A look at grocery aisles and restaurant menus shows how prevalent the trend has become toward products with leaner messaging.

Responding to consumer pressure.

Other changes nudge customers to make healthier choices on their own, such as posting calorie counts on menu boards. The Subway sandwich chain became the largest restaurant chain to start posting the health information earlier this month.

Information is better than taxes or regulation. Having calorie counts on menus and boards is probably one of the most effective things you can do to help people make informed choices.

No individual responsibility

April 20th, 2016 at 7:00 am by David Farrar

Stuff reports:

Auckland doctor Robyn Toomath spent years telling her diabetes patients to lose weight only to have them fail despite their best intentions.

Eventually she stopped altogether and her book, Fat Science, explains why.

Radical as it might sound Toomath says individuals shouldn’t be held responsible for becoming fat, or obese.

“It’s not appropriate to consider body size as being within our personal control when genetics and the environment in which we live has such a powerful effect.”

Toomath says some people are genetically pre-disposed to weight gain and in an environment packed with fatty, sugar-soaked food, it is inevitable they will lose any battle of the bulge.

I totally disagree. Yes there are genetic and environmental factors but they are far less powerful than the power of individual choice.

I got massively overweight because I ate too much food.

I lost the weight because I stopped eating so much food, and did more exercise.

My problem wasn’t the type of food, the advertising, the taste. It was simply I ate too much. And that is the case for most people who are overweight (not all).

Toomath blames almost everything on evil big business, and discounts any significant role for individual choice.


A misleading petition

March 31st, 2016 at 7:00 am by David Farrar

A sugar tax petition states:

New Zealand has a problem. We are the third fattest nation in the world.

This is not true.

The WHO database for Obesity is here.

We are 29th, not 3rd.

Outrageous that a petition has such a misleading “fact”.

How long until there is a milk tax!

March 30th, 2016 at 11:00 am by David Farrar

The Telegraph reports:

People should halve the amount of dairy foods they eat, the Government’s dietary adviser has said in a radical move to cut obesity.

Public Health England (PHE) says men should have only 200 calories of dairy per day while women should have just 160cal, meaning that just one large latte coffee could put a woman over her recommended daily limit.

We need a milk tax!! People must be forced to drink less milk as it has calories in it!

The move was heavily criticised by nutritionists, MPs and the dairy industry, who accused PHE of putting public health at risk with its “baffling” advice.

They say the new guidance does not provide for enough calcium or iodine in people’s diet, essential for healthy bones and brain development.

Minor issue. At least they’ll be skinny!

An own goal for Morgan Foundation

February 15th, 2016 at 10:00 am by David Farrar

Geoff Simmons at the Gareth Morgan Foundation has a triumphant post declaring:

Last year the Taxpayers Union launched a research report claiming that a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages wouldn’t have any impact. Apparently they had some numbers to back up that claim, although they didn’t make the data behind them public. That was not a good move.

Amidst a blaze of publicity they quizzed those that advocated for a soft drink tax whether they would reverse their stance in the face of this evidence.

It was a bold initiative.  Especially given that it turns out they were wrong; either their analysis, data or both were incorrect. Not only has peer-reviewed research been published showing that the Mexican tax is working …

In light of this consensus of support for the corrective tax will the Taxpayers Union now retract their findings or will they cling to their unsubstantiated findings in the face of the evidence? At the very least they need to release their own evidence so it can be critiqued. They do after all promote themselves as a research house rather than an advocacy group. As we all know advocacy groups have a predilection of not letting the evidence get in the way of the ideology.

I think Mr Simmons may be describing his own foundation.

The aim of a sugar tax is to reduce obesity. There is absolutely no evidence at all that any sugar tax anywhere has reduced obesity. This is because people substitute and there are numerous sources of calories.

It is possible that if you tax a specific product, that sales of that product will reduce. The higher the tax, the more impact there will be. But that is only about sales of that product – an output, rather than the desired outcome – a reduction in obesity.

But has the Mexico sugar tax actually reduced sales? Or has it failed to even do that? I wonder whether Mr Simmons has read the entire research report.

You see Katherine Rich points out in this article that the Popkin paper relies on reported data from respondents, not actual sales data. So this entire paper is based on people saying they think they are now drinking less. It is far from robust, despite peer review.

So what has the actual sales data told us in Mexico?

Well the tax collected is an excellent proxy for the sales data. And in 2014 the tax brought in 18.3 billion pesos. And in 11 months of 2015 it has brought in 19.5 billions pesos – so sales appear to be increasing not decreasing.

But even if there was a modest decrease, this may not be causative. Rich makes the point that carbonated drinks sales in NZ fell 4.4% in the last year – and with no sugar tax. Just changing consumer demand.

So overall the argument by the Morgan Foundation is seriously lacking.

UPDATE: The paper cited relied on both reported data from respondents and audits of their receipts and household refuse. However this in no way impacts my conclusion that this is a less robust measurement than the amount of tax collected by the Government which shows sales increasing.

2014/15 NZ Health Survey

November 30th, 2015 at 10:14 am by David Farrar

Lots of interesting data in the latest NZ Health Survey.

Some changes from 2007 to 2015:

  • Smoking rate down from 20.1% to 16.6%
  • 15 to 17 year old smoking rate down from 15.7% to 6.1%
  • Maori smoking rate down from 42.1% to 38.1%
  • Drinking (alcohol) rate down from 83.6% to 79.5%
  • 15 to 17 year old drinking rate down from 74.5% to 57.1%
  • Hazardous drinking rate down from 18.0% to 17.7% (but up from low of 14.9% in 2011)
  • 15 to 17 year old hazardous drinking rate down from 19.5% to 10.8%
  • Obesity rate up from 26.5% to 30.7%
  • 15 to 17 year old obesity rate up from 12.0% to 16.4%

So my conclusions are:

  • Smoking rate steadily dropping and teen smoking rate has plummeted which is good. However 5% target for NZ will not be met without a big drop in the Maori smoking rate.
  • A huge drop in the teen drinking rate, which shows how wrong those are claiming the drinking age needs to increase
  • A drop in the overall drinking rate but an increase in the hazardous drinking rate which means measures should target hazardous drinkers, not all drinkers
  • The obesity rate increase starts young. Even under 5s have a 10% obesity rate, which suggests to me parenting is a major factor. Also cultural factors play a big role – 8% of European children are obese, 7% of Asian children, 15% of Maori children and 30% of Pasifika children.

Maybe this is why child obesity is growing

November 22nd, 2015 at 12:00 pm by David Farrar

The Herald reports:

Walking is no longer the most common way to get to school– and cycling rates have dropped even more dramatically over 25 years.

A new Ministry of Transport report, 25 years of New Zealand Travel: New Zealand Household Travel 1989-2014, examines long-term travel trends, including how schoolchildren commute.

Children are more likely to be car passengers now than 25 years ago, and far fewer are cycling to school.

For primary school children in the late 1980s, 42 per cent of school journeys involved walking, followed by being driven (32 per cent), using public transport (13 per cent) and cycling (12 per cent).

By 2010-2014, the walking rate had fallen to 29 per cent, while more than half of primary school children’s journeys were as car passengers (57 per cent). Public transport had fallen slightly to 11 per cent, with cycling declining by much more, to just 2 per cent.

So the proportion of primary school children who would walk or cycle to school has fallen from 54% to 31%.

Cycling to school saw a similar drop for secondary school students – falling from 19 per cent to 3 per cent of journeys.

Why? I used to cycle to school. Great way to be fit and often faster than the bus.

Studies had found that the main reason for the fall in cycling rates was the belief that biking to school was dangerous, the party said.

Is it more dangerous than 25 years ago?

Labour’s daft sugar policy

November 9th, 2015 at 1:00 pm by David Farrar

Stuff reports:

Deputy leader and health spokeswoman Annette King told the party’s annual conference in Palmerston North on Saturday that Labour would also require “front of package labelling” that was easy to understand based around the number of teaspoons of sugar in a product.

So what will and will not be included?

However, King said some treat foods, such as lollies, would not be covered by the policy.

“They are a treat, they are a sweet. But if you look at the food that has got sugar in it that didn’t use to have sugar in it… We’ve got sugar in peanut butter. we’ve even got a bit of sugar in our Marmite, we’ve got  sugar in our yoghurt that has a heart tick on it.”

Umm, the sugar in peanut butter mainly comes from the peanuts and is pretty small. It has around 1 gram per 15 grams.

Also most of the sugar in yoghurt comes from the milk and the fruit. There’s not huge amounts added in.

But Labour are saying peanut butter may be given a health warning, but not lollies! You’d need to have 1.35 kgs of peanut butter to exceed the recommended sugar limit in a day!

3 News also reported:

She envisaged the policy would apply to foods such as cereals, peanut butter, yoghurt and tomato sauce that did not have sugar added to them in the past.

But Ms King said treat foods such as lollies, chocolate and ice-cream would not be caught out by the requirements.

So ice cream won’t have Labour’s health warming, but other products may. What else could be caught by their policy to have health warnings on processed food with sugar in it?

Now milk is a processed food and it contains nearly 13 teaspoons of sugar per bottle. So under Labour’s policy a one litre milk bottle will carry a health warning saying it has 12.5 teaspoons of sugar!


Look at the sugar in these peas.  The packet has over 12 teaspoons of sugar. Labour’s policy would see peas given a health warning!

I look forward to Labour promoting their idiotic policy where milk, peas and peanut butter are given health warnings, but ice cream and lollies are not!

Blame parents not food companies

October 21st, 2015 at 9:00 am by David Farrar

David Shearer writes:

Here’s a “school lunch” bought from an Auckland dairy this morning. It has 8 teaspoons of sugar – about twice the recommended daily amount for a child, in one single meal.

Obesity is poised to overtake tobacco as New Zealand’s leading preventable health risk. As long as the government lacks the courage to regulate junk food, its plan to tackle obesity isn’t worth the paper it’s written on. Time to stand up to the powerful food manufacturing lobby for the sake of our kids.

And the school lunch is:


I am staggered that David Shearer thinks that if school kids are eating this for lunch, the problem is food manufacturers, not parents.

On an individual level all four food items are fine as an occasional snack. Or is Labour saying that these food items must be banned or taxed extra?

The problem is if they are what a kid is having for lunch on a regular basis.

And I’ll be blunt – you’re a bad parent if that is what you are having your kids eat for lunch.

For a fraction of the cost you can make up a healthy lunch for your kids – sandwiches, fruit, sultanas etc. There is no excuse for the above to be a regular lunch item for kids.

Why do politicians of the left always look to blame companies, rather than blame individuals for poor choices?

No amount of tax or regulation short of banning all potato chips in NZ will stop a kid eating that for lunch, if their parents are not taking an interest in them having healthy food.

And don’t say this is all poor families can afford. That lunch would cost:

  • Calci yum $1.69
  • Grain waves $1.62
  • Bluebird $1.49
  • Minees $1.00

So around $5 for that.

Maybe David Shearer could tell us exactly what regulation he proposes that would stop that food being sold from a dairy?

Stuff reports Andrew Little is saying the same:

Labour leader Andrew Little says the Government should take a stick to junk food producers, rather than shying away from regulation as it tries to tackle rising obesity levels.

Yes how dare the food producers create potato chips. They must be beaten up for it.

There is nothing wrong with so called junk food, in moderation. I have potato chips around once a month. If someone has them every day and is obese, the answer is not regulating or banning potato chips.

The childhood obesity plan

October 20th, 2015 at 1:00 pm by David Farrar

Jonathan Coleman announced:

The 22 initiatives in the plan are a mix of new or an expansion of existing services which are grouped into three key themes:

  • Targeted interventions for those who are obese
  • Increased support for those at risk of becoming obese
  • Broad strategies to make healthier choices easier

“At the core of the plan is a new childhood obesity health target. This target will be part of the health targets programme from 1 July 2016,” says Dr Coleman.

“By December 2017, 95 per cent of children identified as obese in the B4 School Check will be referred to an appropriate 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. The checks aim to identify and address any health, behavioural, social or development concerns which could affect a child’s ability to get the most benefit from school.

“Over 58,600 children have benefited from this free service in the last year. Of that, over 1,400 were referred on for obesity related support. With this target we expect that will treble to over 4,000 a year by December 2017.


The 22 initiatives are here.

The obesity initiative

October 17th, 2015 at 7:00 am by David Farrar

Stuff reports:

The Government is preparing to make a major announcement in the fight against obesity, as it looks to reverse a trend of expanding waistlines and the burden of disease that goes with it.

In the next few weeks it’s expected the Government will announce a major package of reform, that could include changes in schools, primary health and a major public campaign targeted at children and parents.

It’s believed this could include changes to how physical education is run in schools, with both Health Minister Jonathan Coleman and Education Minister Hekia Parata understood to be in discussions. …

It’s expected the national package to be announced will not involve any regulatory changes around sugar content and advertising, or taxes on unhealthy foods or drinks.

Good. There is a role in education and information, but it is not the role of Government to decide which foods can and can not be advertised.

Official documents show the Ministry of Health has completed a major stocktake of programmes under both portfolios.

More than $82 million is currently spent across 76 projects. 

How many work?

UPDATE: The Greens of course are demanding the Government regulates food more:

Government plans to tackle the obesity crisis will not make any headway unless there is a crackdown on junk food, the Green Party says.

The Government is preparing to make a major announcement in the fight against obesity, as it looks to reverse a trend of expanding waistlines and the burden of disease that goes with it.

However, it’s expected the national package to be announced will not involve any regulatory changes around sugar content and advertising, or taxes on unhealthy foods or drinks.

Green Party health spokesperson Kevin Hague said reports that there would be no extra regulations on junk food within the reforms meant they were unlikely to make any impact.

Actually regulatory responses like sugar taxes have failed around the world. Not one has reduced obesity. At best they reduce sales of one particular product.

No food or drink is unhealthy in moderation. A can of coke once a month is fine. A bottle a day is not.

It’s about portion size and quantity of food people eat far more than the mix. Again a quarter pounder is fine occasionally, but not fine as your daily breakfast.

These demands for regulations are nanny statists wanting to tell us what we can and can not eat.

Would you hire someone with a degree in fat studies?

October 2nd, 2015 at 12:00 pm by David Farrar

Stuff reports:

The course, Critical Understandings of Fatness and Health, is being offered as a 300 level distance learning course within the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at Massey University, and contributes to the college’s larger focus on exploring citizenship in the 21st century. …

I agreed to offer the Fat Studies course after a group of Bachelor of Health Science students approached me last year.

They came and expressed an interest in learning more about Fat Studies; they wanted to learn about anti-fat attitudes and how they impact on the health and well-being of fat people, and how anti-fat attitudes result in barriers to fat people receiving healthcare.

This class isn’t about promoting a certain body size, or glorifying a certain lifestyle or health habits.

However, I would suggest that what currently happens in our culture is that only one kind of body and only one kind of lifestyle is acceptable.  

There is a difference between saying only one body type is acceptable (which of course it is not) and saying that all lifestyle choices are acceptable, even if they lead to extremely negative health outcomes.

It also examines the resulting anti-fat attitudes and structural oppression experienced by fat individuals. Fat people face discrimination in most settings in our world, including education, employment, housing, relationships, and in accessing healthcare.

Once the important issue of people discriminating on body size in relationships, I hope they will tackle the equally important issue of relationship discrimination against people who are folically challenged. It is unfair that George Clooney has such great hair.

As a discipline, Fat Studies is similar to Women’s Studies, Māori Studies, Queer Studies and Disability Studies.


Yes, indeed it is.

One way the Government could fulfil their commitment to fat citizens is by updating employment and discrimination laws to include physical size alongside race, gender, sexual orientation, ability, and religion. Maybe that’s part of the plan?

You have basically no choice as to your race, gender, disability or sexual orientation.

But with body size, you do. It is not 100% choice, as genetics do play a role and as Cartman says he is just big boned. But the impact of genetics is relatively minor compared to the impact of personal choices about what you eat and how much you exercise. The latest research I have seen is that genetics account for under 5% of obesity, and you can even counter that by avoiding certain types of food your genes are less efficient at dealing with such as saturated fat.


August 14th, 2015 at 7:00 am by David Farrar

A guest post by Carrick Graham:

The current rate of obesity in New Zealand (particularly child obesity) is a concern of every New Zealander.

As a small country of limited resources it is important to make sure that our government’s investment in reducing rates of obesity is effective.

For the last decade I have been tracking the funding streams of public money spent by the Ministry of Health on obesity related services via contracts with non-government organisations/service providers.

Collectively over this period the Government has spent approximately $317,565,118 to address obesity concerns in New Zealand. This figure was obtained from official data provided by the Ministry of Health and released under the Official Information Act 1986.

This $317.5 million figure does not include research grants or other funding for academic research on obesity. Research grants identified by my company Facilitate Communications, to just a few well-known researchers in the field total more than $16 million and represents the tip of the iceberg of government and other funding sources for obesity related research.

Two successive governments have spent significant amounts following the same strategy of funding an array of NGOs and action groups and still there appears to be little change in New Zealand’s obesity statistics.

Perhaps it is time to take stock of the situation and ask whether there could be a different outcome if that same money was invested in a different way?

There are concerns that public money continues to be spent on groups that do little aside from talk to themselves at conferences for which they’ve utilised public money to organise, and naturally attend. Imagine if more of that $317.5 million had been spent on engaging more New Zealanders to lead healthier lives?

One such example is the group Agencies for Nutrition Action. For the last six years they have received more than $1.8 million from the Ministry of Health for ‘Nutrition and Physical Activity’ services. The expected outcomes could be best described as a ‘talkfest’ with little if any measurable impact on obesity levels.

Having researched this area for 15 years I see too often it is the same academics talking to the same people rather than sparking positive change out in the community.

Recently the Minister of Health Jonathan Coleman instructed the Ministry of Health to develop an obesity prevention plan in response to the high and increasing levels of obesity in New Zealand. One positive result is that the Ministry is now only contracting nutritional and physical activity servies for a further one-year period – until future service priorities are known.

But a fundamental question remains. 

With the Ministry having spent and continuing to spend on average $31 million dollars per year for the last 10 years on obesity related service providers, there is a real question about the effectiveness of this spend.

I believe a review of this spend and its findings would have signicant public interest.

This point is further reinforced with the New Zealand Health Survey indicates 1.2m New Zealanders are obese; and this rate is increasing. Certainly questions could be raised about the efficacy of continuing with spending $30 million on service providers when that money could be utilised in generating more physical activities in schools, clubs or sporting organisations that focus on getting kids out exercising.

The Government’s Healthy Families NZ initiative is certainly a step in the right direction. Other successful programmes could be adopted from overseas to meet local community needs.

The ‘Let’s Move!’ programme, announced by Michelle Obama in 2010 is but one example and  promotes physical activity through the support and cooperation of families, schools and communities. The official ‘Let’s Move! “Move Your Body” music video has been viewed 32 million times.

Contrast this initiaitive against the outputs of a multitude of government funded contracts – such as that with the Agencies for Nutrition Action (a six monthly report to the Ministry’s contract manager outlinging the meetings, workshops or consultations they’ve had) and it is glaringly obvious that the later is not going to achieve the goals of reducing obesity in New Zealand.

In light of the significant amount of public funding that has been spent with no apparent success in reducing the level of obesity in New Zealand, a reprioritisation or reapportioning of funding to more community-focused initiatives for real New Zealanders seems highly appropriate. 

It seems to me that if you continue to fund the same groups in the same way you will get the same result. Perhaps it is time for a different approach.

Disclosure: Carrick Graham’s Facilitate Communications has advised clients on how to deal with increasing calls for regulation and restrictions on products within the food supply chain.

Surgery not the answer for obese teenagers

August 1st, 2015 at 2:00 pm by David Farrar

Stuff reports:

More weight-loss surgery is needed to help the growing population of obese teenagers, a Christchurch surgeon says.

Dr Richard Flint said gastric band surgery, which radically reduces the size of the stomach, was the best available option for weight loss but remained largely unavailable.

District health boards (DHBs) lacked space, paediatricians, dieticians and funding but misguided prejudice also played a role, he said.

Obesity was a significant and growing problem among New Zealand’s youth with 21 per cent of 15-24 year olds obese, according to the latest available Ministry of Health national health survey.

“I think, if there was a programme up and running, you could probably operate for as many hours as the day would give you to be honest,” Flint said.

I think gastric band surgery is a very sensible option for some adults, when other measures have failed.

But I think for teenagers, it is inadvisable. It should be the last resort, not the first resort.

A reader on obesity

July 13th, 2015 at 2:00 pm by David Farrar

A reader writes in:

Obesity is the new thing for the statists.

Unfortunately, nutrition science is now more shonky than climate science.

It’s not a matter of calories-in — calories-out; or we that are eating more and exercising less.

Traditional people’s didn’t run around much.  Hunter gatherers lay about in the sun!

It’s been understood for over a hundred years that it’s a matter of dysregulation and the focus has been on the cause and especially the recent cause for the dysregulation.

Think of everything else about an animal and the concept of homeostasis.  It’s the same for satiety and nutrition.  Animals on their own food don’t get fat.  You fatten them by feeding them different food.  We know that from zoos and feedlots.

The science is hard because controlled experiments are very hard.

It would seem that the shift from saturated fat to refined carbohydrate has caused a major disruption.  The issue here is sugar regulation and insulin and insulin sensitivity.

It’s increasingly likely that the cause of the obesity crisis is nutrition experts getting government to demonise saturated fats and the resulting increase in refined carbs and seed oils.  The problem also appears to transfer epigenetically to children.

I am not wanting to lecture you but simply to highlight what is a fascinating and truly shocking area.  Most of what we popularly think is so is not and has been knowing as not for decades.

It’s vey much like the argument over markets versus central planning.  Positions are entrenched without knowledge.

A couple of good places to start are Gary Taubes Why we Get Fat and Nina Teicholz The Big Fat Surprise.

The point is that the very people calling as experts for a tax on sugar are the very people who caused the obesity crisis and the sickness and death of millions.

Why a sugar tax does nothing for obesity

July 9th, 2015 at 10:00 am by David Farrar

The Taxpayers’ Union has released a very good report on sugar taxes overseas, and why they would not affect obesity rates in NZ.

Their summary:

  • Only 1.6 per cent of New Zealanders’ total energy intake comes from the added sugar content of sugar sweetened non-alcoholic beverages
  • New Zealanders’ consumption of sugar and sugar sweetened beverages is trending downward
  • New Zealanders are still getting fatter despite consuming less calories, suggesting that we’re not burning as many calories
  • Sugar taxes hurt the poor and do not result in the decreased consumption tax-supporters claim
  • Similar taxes overseas have not worked – Mexico’s tax on soda resulted in no decrease in consumption, despite recent claims to the contrary by New Zealand campaigners

Despite this, the media are full of stories today about another some academics claiming we need a 20% tax on saturated fat. None of these taxes have ever been shown to actually reduce obesity – at best they just change consumption habits from one source of calories to another.

The revelation that only 1.6% of our average calories comes from soda drinks shows how ridiculous the claims are that one can impact obesity with a soda tax.

Some extracts from the report:

Between 1997 and 2009 median daily sugar intake for New Zealand males fell from 62 to 55 grams while females showed a statistically insignificant decrease from 45 to 42 grams. This occurred at the same time obesity rates increased in the country from 17 per cent of the population to 27.7 per cent for males and from 20.6 per cent to 27.8 per cent for females.

Data that the academics who propose such taxes have never mentioned.

The New Zealand Adult Nutrition Survey shows that only 5.0 per cent of New Zealanders’ total energy intake comes from non-alcoholic beverages with 1.6 per cent of the total energy intake from just sucrose (a proxy for the added sugar content) of sugar-sweetened non-alcoholic beverages.

Picking out one source of calories is very unlikely to have any impact on obesity. The key is that overall net intake of calories needs to be approximately no more than 2,000 a day, This happens by eating less, or exercising more.

And as for the Mexican soda tax:

Nielsen sales data shows that there was no significant reduction in litres consumed in the twelve months to May 2013 (before the tax) and the twelve months to May 2015 (the first full year of data since the tax was introduced). Between these years, consumption of SSBs fell by 182 litres. 182 litres in a country that consumes over 11 billion litres of carbonated soft drinks is a flat result.

The difference between what activists claim, and what the sales data shows, results from the study being based on panel data and interviews and not actual accurate sales data. Expressed preferences are often skewed because what people say they do and what they actually do are often quite different. For example, when asked how often they use local libraries, members of the public tend to inflate their actual use. It appears here that participants have told researchers they are reducing their consumption of sugary drinks when the national sales data shows that not to be the case. The lesson here is actions speak louder than words.

And even if the tax did reduce consumption of soda drinks, that does not mean a reduction in calories, as people will often substitute.

Education, not bans and taxes

April 19th, 2015 at 4:00 pm by David Farrar

Stuff reports:

As a government programme aimed at honing the waistlines of chubby children kicks off, leading health experts are questioning whether it will be enough to stem the rising tide of obesity and related illnesses.

The programme under the Government’s Healthy Families NZ initiative is to be launched on Friday , with a consortium of eight iwi in Gisborne the first to lead a charge to steer families into making healthier choices.

It does not target individuals, but focuses on a community approach to healthy eating.

Healthy Families NZ is based on a similar programme much vaunted in Victoria, Australia. Children in Colac, southwest of Melbourne, who had been on the programme, were on average 1kg lighter than those in neighbouring towns. Their waists were on average 3cm smaller and they could also run faster and had lower body mass index scores.

This sounds worthwhile. There are other things Government and local government can do to help, such as making cities more friendly for walking and cycling.

University of Auckland nutrition and global health professor Boyd Swinburn said the programme showed “real promise” but it was not enough on its own. 

“I think it’ll be very valuable for some communities and the evidence that we collected in Australia seems to show it will be effective in European klds. 

“But also, it needs to work for Maori and Pacific kids and I think there’s no question in my mind they’re going to need other policies like restrictions on junk-food marketing to kids, healthy food policies in schools, taxes on sugary beverages, to be able to get sufficient traction to improve obesity in those groups.” 

You would have thought the absolute failure of Denmark’s fax tax would cause the advocates here to stop pushing failed solutions. But, no.  We have a culture among public health activists in NZ that policies must be about attacking corporates, and removing choice, and taxing things more (and they want the taxes to be used to fund their own activities).

But the Government has emphatically ruled out such levies on fizzy drink, saying they didn’t work and placed unnecessary financial burden on the most vulnerable.



Fast food ban fails

April 1st, 2015 at 12:00 pm by David Farrar

The Atlantic reports:

The national discourse about health and obesity has never been a particularly cordial conversation.

In 2008, it hit a tendentious peak when a ban on new fast-food restaurants in South Los Angeles brought the term “food apartheid” to the table. The ordinance, which was implemented in a part of the city that is both disproportionately poor and obese, came as a response to the idea that there are two different systems for accessing food in Los Angeles, one with more limited options in an economically depressed part of the city that is predominantly black and Latino, and the other with more variety in more affluent neighborhoods.

We often hear that if you ban bottle stores, fast food outlets etc that it will reduce alcohol abuse, reduce obesity etc.

The ordinance didn’t shutter existing restaurants, but it did block construction of new stand-alone fast-food restaurants in an area with 700,000 residents. (That’s a population that, if separated from the rest of Los Angeles, would still make one of the U.S.’s 20 largest cities.) The effort also dovetailed with an initiative to encourage supermarkets and stores with presumably healthier fare to move in.

So how did this ban on new fast food outlets go?

On Friday, the ban got a dose of bad news: A study released by the RAND Corporation revealed that the ordinance had “failed to reduce fast-food consumption or reduce obesity rates in the targeted neighborhood.” In fact, obesity rates in the area had grown at a faster clip than elsewhere in the city. As NBC News reported, the percentage of people in South Los Angeles who were overweight or obese in 2007 was 63 percent. By 2011, that figure was 75 percent.

The solution to obesity is education, parenting and determination, not bans.

Note that the increase in obesity in this area was faster than the rest of the city.

WHO wants to ban some food advertising

March 7th, 2015 at 7:00 am by David Farrar

The Daily Caller reports:

Fat kids are serious business. So serious, in fact, that the United Nations is urging countries to let its bureaucrats micromanage what foods are allowed to advertise on TV.

The European branch of the World Health Organization (WHO), the health arm of the U.N., is trying to stop childhood obesity by urging countries to adopt an international blueprint that would ban almost all food advertisements targeted at children and place substantial regulatory influence in the hands of the UN. …

With that in mind, last week, WHO’s Regional Office for Europe released a “nutrient profile model” that it recommends as the model for how countries go about deciding what foods should be locked out of advertising to children. Such a model is currently only used in a handful of countries, including Norway, the U.K. and Denmark, but WHO is hoping that with its nudging more countries will imitate these policies.

The exhaustive model breaks foods into 17 different groups, ranging from processed fruits and vegetables to cheese. Each category is evaluated on its nutritional content per 100g of food. Foods that exceed thresholds for sugar, fat, salt or calories would be barred from any marketing that would increase the food’s appeal to children. For example, a cheese would fall under the ban if it contains at least 20g of fat or 1.3g of salt per 100g.

If adopted, the model would totally prohibit all advertisements for chocolate, candy, cake, sugary soda, ice cream and fruit juice. The only foods subject to no restrictions whatsoever are meats fresh fruits, poultry and vegetables.

So at first they just ban advertisements for these foods. Then they ban the foods themselves.

A child obesity health target?

February 13th, 2015 at 12:00 pm by David Farrar

The Herald reports:

Health Minister Jonathan Coleman is looking at introducing a Health Target to control child obesity. …

Auckland University obesity expert Professor Boyd Swinburn, representing 40 public health specialists, is scheduled to meet Dr Coleman at his Beehive office today to discuss a child obesity target. “We want to show there’s substantial public health support if he wants to go down this track,” Professor Swinburn said.

He wants the Government to aim for reducing our rate of obese and overweight children from around a third at present to around a quarter – Australia’s current rate – by 2025.

It is not inappropriate for the Government to want to reduce the obesity rate with children. A lower obesity rate would be a very good thing.

But the Government does not have a huge influence of issues such as obesity. It can guarantee good outcomes for elective surgery, and ED waiting times because it funds the public health system and can put resources in to achieve the outcomes.

On other public health issues it can reasonably comfortably achieve a target such as x% of kids vaccinated, as getting parents to vaccinate their kids is not asking them to do something radically different. It is just getting them in to see a doctor.

But to try and have fewer obese kids is a different category. That requires parents (and kids) to quite radically change their behaviour. It means better parenting skills where parents take more care with what they feed their kids, and make sure they exercise more. And improving parenting skills is about as tough as it can get.

The NZ Medical Association has called for a broad front to tackle obesity, with measures such as a tax on sugary drinks, greater protection of children from the marketing of unhealthy foods, traffic light food labelling and a halt to fast-food outlets opening near schools.

Dr Coleman said the Government would not introduce a sugar tax because it wouldn’t work.

It is good that has been rejected. But we should be wary of some of the other proposals which all involve the state deciding what foods can be advertised and sold. That is a slippery slope. Any policies should be focused on supporting parents and kids to make healthier decisions around food and exercise. Not about new taxes and restrictions.

Another stupid experiment

December 5th, 2014 at 12:00 pm by David Farrar

Stuff reports:

In an experiment similar to that of Super Size Me, in which US filmmaker Morgan Spurlock ate nothing but McDonald’s for 30 days, George Prior, a 50-year-old Los Angeles father of two has documented weight and health changes after introducing 10 cans of Coca-Cola a day into his diet. 

Super Size Me was a con. Spurlock ate 5,000 calories of food a day. Of course he out on weight. A less biased experiment saw someone eat McDonalds every day for three months, and lose weight – as they kept to 2,000 calories a day.

Drinking 10 cans of Coke a day is an extra 1400 calories a day, so every six to seven days you will put on a kg of weight. This is not because Coke is inherently bad. Just that you should not drink 10 cans of it a day.

I like Eggs Benedict. If I ate Eggs Benedict ten times a day, I’d get very unwell. If I have it once a week, it is fine.

There is no good or bad food. It is all about moderation and variety. But experiments like this are about demonising a company because they’re a large corporate.

Mr Prior used a combination of Facebook and YouTube entries to show the transformation that resulted in a 10.5 kilogram increase in his weight and a body fat increase from 9 to 16 per cent.

If you drank 3.5 litres of orange juice a day, you’d have an even bigger weight gain as there are more calories in orange juice than coke. Sure Coke has sugar (which is why I only drink Coke Zero or Diet Coke) but it is the extra calories that would have the main impact.


Calorie labelling

December 3rd, 2014 at 2:00 pm by David Farrar

I’m a big fan of places in the US where stores display calorie counts with their menus. I always look at them before deciding what to buy, and will often buy something different to my preference, once I know its calorie count.

However it seems I am a minority. Emily Oster at 538 writes:

Last week, the Food and Drug Administration announced sweeping rules that will require extensive calorie labeling nationwide. This includes on menus at chain restaurants, movie theaters, bakeries, coffee shops and vending machines. This change has been hailed by legislators and food-policy experts as a landmark in fighting obesity.

But will it work? The evidence I pulled together above isn’t conclusive. …

What does this mean for the success of the FDA labeling effort? It seems plausible that some subset of individuals at some restaurant locations will decrease their calorie intake. In fact, this seems almost certain. Every time I bring up calorie labeling with people I work with, someone will describe how the practice changed their behavior. One colleague realized that her habit of purchasing muffins rather than croissants to save calories was a waste — croissants have fewer calories than muffins.

On the other hand, if the idea is that these changes will drastically affect obesity in low-income populations eating at fast-food chains, the evidence doesn’t support this hope.

So it will be of benefit to some people like me, who are already motivated to think about the health impact of what I eat, but may have little impact on those most in need.

A supporter of calorie labeling will ask, “What is the downside?” Even if only a small fraction of people respond by decreasing their calories, there is no loss to those who did not change. So, why worry about it? This ignores the obvious cost to restaurants of calculating the calories in their products and of changing their menus. A grocery-store industry trade group estimated the cost of compliance with calorie-labeling rules could initially amount to $1 billion. The change also ignores the possible psychic costs to people.

Even if I am still going to eat a muffin after I learn that there are 520 calories in it, I may feel worse about doing so. If the actual impact of calorie labeling is to encourage only a few people to eat fewer calories but to make many more people feel worse about themselves, it seems less than obvious that it is a welfare-improving idea.

I’d like to see more stores in NZ do calorie labelling, but I don’t think there is a case for it to be mandatory – based on the evidence to date.

Rich on sugar tax

July 11th, 2014 at 7:00 am by David Farrar

Katherine Rich writes at Stuff:

Sugar taxes will extract more money from citizens’ wallets for governments but do nothing to curb obesity.

While sugar is seen by some as the current food demon, it’s important to dial back the hysteria for a fact-based discussion.

Sugars are an important part of people’s diets, providing energy for the body and brain. Over the past decade, sucrose consumption in New Zealand has declined, and reports suggest most people consume at moderate levels.

All this while obesity has been rising. The remaining part of the energy-in, energy-out equation is physical activity, but anti-sugar activists prefer to blame food companies.

Of course.

And note when they propose a new tax, they never propose lowering other taxes to compensate.

The inconvenient truth for those wanting to scapegoat full-sugar carbonated drinks – fizzy – is that there has been a dramatic drop in sales in the past 15 years as consumers turn to the growing array of zero calorie and diet fizz options now available.

With Kiwis eating less sugar and drinking less sugary fizz at a time of rising obesity levels, it’s nonsense to pretend fizz taxes are going to magic away the obesity problem.

I only drink a soda with sugar in it around 1% of the time – if nothing else is available.

Those arguing that because taxes helped curb tobacco harm they will work for sugar overlook the fact that tobacco taxes work only because they add close to 500 per cent to the cost of the product.

Those wanting to apply such taxes to fizz are effectively advocating for a 1.5 litre family serve of Coke to jump from $3.39 to nearly $17.

Don’t give them ideas!

And likening food regulation to tobacco regulation doesn’t bear even the slightest scrutiny. We have to eat food to live. Food consumed in moderation is not harmful.


A fizz tax of 10 per cent or 20 per cent will extract more money from Kiwis but leave buyer behaviour unchanged because, as British nutrition expert Professor Jack Winkler points out, “demand for soft drinks is very inelastic, very unresponsive”.

In his 2011 commentary in the British Journal of Nutrition, he said a 10 per cent tax on soft drinks would, at best, change behaviours by “less than a sip. It would not even cut sugar intake by a gram”.

But it would take more money out of taxpayers pockets and into the Government’s.

Should parents be accountable for fat kids?

June 9th, 2014 at 2:00 pm by David Farrar

As some doctors here for for taxes and bans on certain food and drinks, Cristina Odone has a different solution – hold parents responsible, rather than advertisers.

She writes in The Telegraph:

“What do we hate? The Nanny state!” might be a suitable marching song for conservatives — until, that is, children’s well-being is compromised. When parents abuse their role as their child’s protectors the state is right to intervene. Which is why the couple in Norfolk, arrested for allowing their son’s weight to reach 15 stone, should face court.

The son is aged only 11. To be 95 kgs at 11 years old is horrendous. He’s only five feet tall.

Imagine parents who regularly gave their son heroin; or a bottle of vodka. Anyone observing such behaviour would instinctively call the police to save the child. The same now has to be true of a child whose parents are feeding him too many of the wrong things. We now know that food — junk food, fatty food, sugar, additives  – can prove as damaging to a child’s health as heroin or alcohol. Indeed, sugar is so toxic that experts claim it is as bad as tobacco: it leads not only to obesity, but to diabetes too.

Parents who ignore these facts and ply their children with excess food (or just really bad food) are abusing their children as clearly as those who let them take drugs. In the case of the couple in Norfolk, their son suffers from autism: he is all the more at the mercy of his parents’ care. They defend his weight by claiming that it is down to bad genes. Wrong: it’s down to the parents.

Genes of course play a part. But they don’t get you that large at age 11.

The pressure is on to change Britons’ diet. Sadly, the best way forward is to scare the living daylights out of parents who have been too lazy to monitor their child’s eating. The threat of a prison sentence, and of social services taking the child in care, sound draconian but might prove the only solutions.

There is a point where it probably does become child abuse.