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Speaker: Talking past each other: Ideological silos and research

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  • Moz,

    One caveat is that when we started the whole emphasis on "low fat food" manufacturers responded not by pushing fresh food, but by substituting sugar for fat. Insofar as they focussed on fresh food, it was making it cheaper by producing varieties that suit the food industry at the expense of nutrition.

    I'm somewhat cautious of sugar taxes for fear that they will simply divert the problem into another area. It's pushing on one part of a balloon, while the underlying society-level problem of "we'd rather have cheap than good" is not addressed. That leads to many individuals having to choose either good food or enough food, never both.

    Sydney, West Island • Since Nov 2006 • 1193 posts Report Reply

  • Howard Edwards, in reply to Tim Darlington,

    Well here are a couple of potential jumps over some of those hurdles.

    The price of milk was fairly constant in NZ until 1976 when it started rising steadily until 1990. Here's an article summarising the price of milk in NZ over time.

    The first McDonalds opened in NZ in 1976, which made sugary drinks and desserts an integral part of the fast food experience - before that NZ only had fish and chip shops and hamburger shops where there were no desserts and the fizzy drinks were in a fridge at the back of the store.

    Albany • Since Apr 2013 • 66 posts Report Reply

  • Bart Janssen, in reply to James Butler,

    “Proven false” in what way?

    Those arguments claimed taxing tobacco would make poor people poorer and reduce their standard of living - which would be bad.

    No such drop in the standard of living occurred in response to tobacco taxes.

    Instead fewer poor people spent money on cigarettes, improving their net wealth and their health. The exact opposite of the claims made by the shills for the tobacco companies.

    It's possible taxing high sugar drinks might prove to be different.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 4450 posts Report Reply

  • Brent Jackson,

    … and it’s possible taxing high sugar drinks might prove to be the same.

    Worth a try, I reckon.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 614 posts Report Reply

  • James Butler, in reply to Bart Janssen,

    So your problem is that a tax on high sugar foods/drinks is bad because it’s essential for poor folk to eat/drink these products in a way that it is not essential for them to smoke???

    I'm just reflecting on what differences there might be. The bigger one I think is that the link between sugar and obesity is tenuous and poorly understood, where the link between tobacco and cancer is direct.

    Auckland • Since Jan 2009 • 856 posts Report Reply

  • Moz, in reply to James Butler,

    the link between sugar and obesity is tenuous and poorly understood

    It's at least as well understood as the link between environmental estrogens or psuedo-estrogens and obesity, or between soot and global warming. Viz, the question is not whether there's a causal relationship, it's on how strong the effect is.

    But as with all these statistical effects, it's very hard to point to a single factor and a single event and say "caused". Often it's impossible, even in theory. One of the major issues is that the death rate is 100% so it's difficult to find a control population that doesn't die from other causes. With sugar intake it's further complicated by the prevalence of sugars and the expense of eliminating some or all of them. Personal experience here, I find the low FODMAP diet helps my digestion but gosh it's tricky to do.

    The is political "science" rather than medicine. "if we change these 200 things, one of which is introducing a sugar tax, what happens?" You'd never get a university ethics committee to even consider a proposal to form government, let alone approve one.

    Sydney, West Island • Since Nov 2006 • 1193 posts Report Reply

  • Lilith __, in reply to Moz,

    the link between sugar and obesity is tenuous and poorly understood

    It’s at least as well understood as the link between environmental estrogens or psuedo-estrogens and obesity, or between soot and global warming. Viz, the question is not whether there’s a causal relationship,

    While it’s true that food makes us fat, food also keeps us alive.

    Sugar is a nutrient, not a poison.

    Dunedin • Since Jul 2010 • 3887 posts Report Reply

  • Lilith __,

    Why don’t we tax alcohol? That'll stop drunkenness and alcoholism.

    And taxing petrol will stop people using so much.

    We already pay tax (GST) on food. IMO taxing sodas would be pointless and ineffective, as well as punitive.

    Dunedin • Since Jul 2010 • 3887 posts Report Reply

  • James Butler, in reply to Lilith __,

    taxing petrol

    We do this, but it's more a proxy for proper road pricing than a tax.

    Auckland • Since Jan 2009 • 856 posts Report Reply

  • Lilith __, in reply to James Butler,

    taxing petrol

    We do this, but it’s more a proxy for proper road pricing than a tax.

    Yes, although AFAIK it doesn't remotely cover roading costs.

    But my point is about how much a tax changes behaviour, or not.

    Dunedin • Since Jul 2010 • 3887 posts Report Reply

  • Moz, in reply to Lilith __,

    Sugar is a nutrient, not a poison.

    The dose makes the poison and the evidence that some people eat too much sugar, and the great majority of those people eat primarily refined sugar.

    I have seen people get "citrus trots" when they eat too much fresh fruit and it's both amusing and gross, but you have to be pretty dedicated to do that. Whereas it's very easy to sit down with a box of sweets, chocolate or soft drink and keep the sugar plateau going until you stupefy yourself. I don't know if you could actually give yourself diarrhea that way, but I'm sure you could make yourself very unwell.

    Sydney, West Island • Since Nov 2006 • 1193 posts Report Reply

  • Lilith __, in reply to Moz,

    Sugar is a nutrient, not a poison

    The dose makes the poison

    As it says in the article I’ve linked to with those words.

    It’s actually easy to get fat without refined sugar. Eat lots of carbs and fats and fruits and honey and unrefined sugars. Shall we tax them too?

    Dunedin • Since Jul 2010 • 3887 posts Report Reply

  • Bart Janssen, in reply to James Butler,

    I think is that the link between sugar and obesity is tenuous and poorly understood, where the link between tobacco and cancer is direct.

    The link between high sugar foods and obesity is rock solid. Much more proven than the link between tobacco and cancer was 40 years ago when we first started taxing the hell out of tobacco.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 4450 posts Report Reply

  • Bart Janssen, in reply to Lilith __,

    While it’s true that food makes us fat, food also keeps us alive.

    Sugar is a nutrient, not a poison.

    That's like saying alcohol is a nutrient (which it is, kinda). Yes our bodies can use sugar but that doesn't mean it's healthy to eat large quantities of sugar.

    I really don't understand this attitude. Nothing about these super high sugar foods is remotely nutritious. You may as well put 6 teaspoons of sugar in a glass of water and call it healthy, it really is a bizarre response.

    Nobody is talking about banning sugar, what has been suggested is that products that have ridiculously high concentrations of sugar should be made less attractive.

    I get why folks might have an ideological objection to using taxation to do that but to argue that these drinks are nutritious is just odd.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 4450 posts Report Reply

  • Lilith __, in reply to Bart Janssen,

    to argue that these drinks are nutritious is just odd.

    Bart that is not remotely what anyone is saying here.

    Do we tax things by simple-sugar content? That would include milk.

    Dunedin • Since Jul 2010 • 3887 posts Report Reply

  • Tim Darlington, in reply to Howard Edwards,

    Well here are a couple of potential jumps over some of those hurdles.

    And I'm sure those things are factors in increasing obesity levels (although it's worth pointing out that milk also contains significant amounts of sugar). The thing is, no genetic component is required for that explanation, because lipogenesis is largely a matter of blood glucose levels and insulin response. so a significant increase in consumption of desserts and sugary drinks could be expected to cause an increase in obesity regardless of genetics. As could an increase in the consumption of carbohydrates in general, which is the elephant in the room Robyn Toomath would prefer to pretend isn't there, given that she'll have spent most of her career telling people to reduce fat consumption, thereby increasing carbs consumption. Better to posit a highly unlikely genetic explanation for obesity than to admit you spent decades making things worse, I guess.

    Since Nov 2006 • 56 posts Report Reply

  • Jeremy Andrew, in reply to Lilith __,

    While it’s true that food makes us fat, food also keeps us alive.Sugar is a nutrient, not a poison.

    Sodium is a nutrient, vital to our health. I don't recommend eating refined chunks of it.
    (he says as he sips a can of Mountain Dew)

    Hamiltron - City of the F… • Since Nov 2006 • 900 posts Report Reply

  • Danielle,

    A few months ago, Giovanni Tiso said something to me that really stuck: education campaigns about healthy eating and exercise can only go so far, because at a certain point in those education campaigns all we're doing is telling poor people how nice it would be if they had more money and time.

    James said "end poverty", but apparently that's so hard for us that all we can think of doing is being punitive to poor people. Again. Colour me surprised.

    Charo World. Cuchi-cuchi!… • Since Nov 2006 • 3828 posts Report Reply

  • Stephen Judd,

    Another thing to add: yes, I am an ideological thinker. There is nothing wrong with that. Certain things, no matter how effective, efficient, or utility-maximising, are off the table if they conflict with principle. They must be weighed in a context and placed in a hierarchy of value. Health! Freedom! Equality!

    If you don't have the ideology of NZI, or authoritarian public health figures, you must still have some other system of thought that you use to balance competing goals. And that's your ideology right there.

    Wellington • Since Nov 2006 • 3122 posts Report Reply

  • Moz, in reply to Lilith __,

    The dose makes the poison ... As it says in the article I’ve linked .

    It sort of does, yes. It's buried well down in the article, though. I am quite sick of misleading headlines and ledes on science articles.

    A sugar tax would be tricky, exactly because it's both common and necessary. It would be even more tricky to avoid nasty side-effects from trying to target the "bad" sugars. Honey, for example, can be used as a sweetener to excess, but it's commonly sold as almost pure sugar... should it be taxed like white sugar, or like fruit juice, or as a "natural food"? If the latter, what's to stop someone making a "honey juice" drink (you can buy "cane sugar" drinks in Oz and many pacific islands). It's also a great example of a natural, organic, food that can be bad for you. Tautologically, of course, in the "too much is bad" sense :)

    The goal, as I understand it, of a sugar tax is to use pricing to nudge people away from bad food choices. In a country like NZ with a legal fine print level objection to poverty it would be necessary to make at least a token effort to offset that by either giving money to poor people, or giving money to the "good food" people. Much as I am not a fan of the complexities of the Australian GST, taking GST off fresh food would be one mechanism for that. Even though the benefits from doing that would be disproportionately enjoyed by those rich enough to buy fresh fruit and vegetables. The simpler approach would just be to recycle the tax into benefits or low income tax cuts, but those are equally easily cut later (if, somehow, we elected a government inclined to do that).

    Sydney, West Island • Since Nov 2006 • 1193 posts Report Reply

  • Stephen Judd,

    Oh yeah, the idea that we can have a debate free of politics, that sensible people have no politics, and that ideology makes your viewpoint invalid is precisely the stance and framing co-opted by the National party and their non-politician PM to stifle dissent and claim neutrality and normality.

    Wellington • Since Nov 2006 • 3122 posts Report Reply

  • william blake,

    http://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2016/mar/16/budget-2016-george-osborne-sugar-tax-mixed-response

    "Manufacturers will have to decide whether to absorb the cost, pass it on to consumers or reduce the amount of added sugar in their products. The Office for Budget Responsibility expects firms to start stripping out excess sugar."

    Since Mar 2010 • 378 posts Report Reply

  • Bart Janssen, in reply to Lilith __,

    Bart that is not remotely what anyone is saying here.

    Do we tax things by simple-sugar content? That would include milk.

    Sorry I misunderstood you as saying that we shouldn't tax sugar because it is a nutrient and therefore not unhealthy.

    As for how you tax sugar. You do it the way you tax or apply duty to alcohol, by percentage. You can even set some tax free thresholds. Remember the aim is to reduce use of 6 teaspoon per glass of water drinks and their ilk, so slippery slope arguments aren't needed.

    And yes there is a whole other ideological argument that can be used to distract us about keeping the tax system simple, but honestly those folks should be spending their effort targeting the various trust and company tax loopholes before they worry about a sugar tax/duty.

    And yes there will be a couple of products where percentage makes no sense eg honey or maple syrup, but in this age of individual product tracking in supermarkets that really isn't a big deal so one exception invalidating the whole system arguments aren't needed either.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 4450 posts Report Reply

  • giovanni tiso, in reply to william blake,

    The Office for Budget Responsibility expects firms to start stripping out excess sugar.

    They also expect the tax to be passed on entirely to the consumer. Which they regard as a good thing.

    Wellington • Since Jun 2007 • 7473 posts Report Reply

  • Don Christie,

    The idea of a consumption tax to change consumer behaviour is not new. I do find it strange that when I have suggested removing GST form certain common items I get told how impossible that is by many on this platform because we have such a "simple" tax system and that must be "a good thing". Only our "simple" tax system is extraordinarily unfair on the least well off sections of our society. Thanks Rogernomics.

    Anyhoo.

    The obvious policy approach, assuming we are agreed there is a consumption issue, is to tax the undesired consumption whilst at the same time compensating those most impacted by that consumption tax with additional income.

    In NZ the latter could be achieved by increasing Working for Families payments, child allowances and benefits. That way people can decide to use the "additional" income to purchase different sources of energy...or not.

    This is basic economics. Paid for out of the tax collected. Not every new tax has to be a net gain for the exchequer.

    Finally, my understanding of the "sugar" problem is that it is more of a "sugar + salt" problem and our fizzy drink and fast food providers have been cynically upping the amounts of both, knowing full well they are killing us, to make us want to eat and drink more of their produce. Just like the tobacco companies.

    Wellington • Since Nov 2006 • 1645 posts Report Reply

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