Waistline raises question, is it time to look again at sugar and fat taxes?

Being a "larger gentleman", I think it is important to get a few things out of the way so that if you want to call me a hypocrite, then you have the ammunition.

For nearly 20 years I was on the Maori Advisory Committee of the Human Nutrition Department at the University of Otago and before that a health promoter based in Dunedin.

I therefore have the education and the resources to be a healthier weight, but often do not think about it or am just too ill-disciplined.

My choices are my choices, my failures are my failures and I cannot blame others for my expanding waistline.

However, there is also something else going on.

This month I was at a meeting on diabetes research and saw Sir Jim Mann, an authority on diabetes and obesity.

What we were supposed to discuss was research priorities. Instead I hijacked our discussion and complained about the role of food companies whose business models seemed to only be interested in profits, while taking little responsibility for any harm they might cause. Sir Jim told me about Margaret Chan, a past director general of the World Health Organisation, who accused Big Food of using similar tactics to Big Tobacco in stopping regulation that might affect profits.

Enough time has passed to look back at the tactics of Big Tobacco in the 20th century and how it manipulated and obscured the truth of the negative effects of its products.

In 2006, Judge Gladys Kessler declared American tobacco companies guilty of corruption and fraud where they "have marketed and sold their lethal product with zeal, with deception, with a single-minded focus on their financial success, and without regard for the human tragedy or social costs that success exacted".

Any company accused of exploitative practice that manipulates public consumption to make a profit at the expense of people’s health will follow Big Tobacco’s lead and tell you three things.

Firstly, that they are a responsible company. Secondly, that their marketing is primarily about increasing their market share. Thirdly, that in the end it is about freedom of choice — in a democracy adults make their own decisions and any limit on this freedom is an imposition of the "nanny state".

The New Zealand food industry has sometimes borrowed Big Tobacco’s tactics.

When health professionals and academics advocated for a tax on added fat and sugar, they were immediately targeted by food lobbying groups. There were orchestrated social media comments, accusations and even threats, all to undermine the message and the resolution of those whose primary efforts were to help people live longer and more fulfilled lives.

Some of these attacks even ended up in the courts.

Many health advocates have seen the damage created by type 2 diabetes and those suffering from obesity related problems.

Each year more than 900 people die from the complications of diabetes and this does not even count the deaths associated with obesity, such as heart disease and some cancers. This is almost identical to the 2700 who have died in the last three years from Covid-19. We committed an enormous amount of resources to preventing the spread of Covid-19 until we had vaccinated the overwhelming majority of the population. We also sacrificed some of our freedoms to protect others.

Sugar and fat taxes do not prevent freedoms. In fact, if we put large enough taxes on we could not just fund more healthy lifestyles programmes, it could even contribute to the removal of GST on fruit and vegetables making them more accessible.

Whatever Big Food paid its lobbyists and the associated court cases, it must have been a bargain. The tactics funded by Big Food worked, as did the harassment. We have heard little from health professionals and academics promoting sugar and fat taxes in recent years. Is it time to look again at sugar and fat taxes, so that we can invest in making the healthy choice the easier choice?

Humans, by nature, crave fat, sugar and salt because our ancestors were not sure when we would get these again. Corporations, by nature, crave profits and so will resist taxes and regulations. It is a match made in "unregulated heaven" that needs to be addressed.

The earlier argument of an over-reaching "nanny state" is one we should always consider. Our freedoms are too hard won to just give them away for a bowl of pottage. Big Food would answer that the pottage should be extra crispy, creamy, supersized, with no added sugar needed because the concentrated fruit in the original ingredients are the sweetest they can find.

The health of our population is too important to leave it to any who would hide behind a mask of corporate responsibility to gain all the profit they can get away with.

— Anaru Eketone is an associate professor in social and community work at the University of Otago.