DHBs want a tax on sugary drinks – warning the obesity epidemic could cause kiwi children to live a shorter life than their parents.
The extraordinary letters sent to Health Minister David Clark are the strongest call for change that has so far been found in a healthcare system that treats more obesity-related diseases and caries.
"For the first time in history, NZ children have been able to lead a shorter life than their parents as a result of overweight and obesity," said Andrew Blair, chairman of DHB's Capital & Coast and Hutt Valley, to Clark.
Pacific, Māori, and people living in the poorest areas are carrying the burden of an obesity problem that causes "rising demand and rising costs," Blair wrote.
"We understand the difficulties with different lobbying groups in this highly controversial area and would encourage you to be as active as possible, especially with regard to sweetened drinks, including the introduction of a tax.
"Their commitment to school clinics and ensuring the strength of our health services will also help us support healthy communities and families, which would be more effective if the environment supports less unnecessary sugar-sweetened drinks and energy drinks."
The DHBs cited the World Health Organization's (WHO) position that there is clear evidence that taxes and subsidies affect buying patterns, which may limit the consumption of sugar-sweetened drinks and help fight obesity and diabetes. A tax was also supported by the NZ Dental Association and the Australian Medical Association.
Clark was urged to quickly introduce a tax and strongly consider including artificially sweetened beverages because they are also harmful to oral health.
Blair was not available for an interview. Of the other 18 DHBs in the country, who responded to a request for comment, Nelson-Marlborough DHB confirmed that it supports a 20% excise duty on sugar-sweetened beverages.
Auckland's three DHBs are members of the Healthy Auckland Together coalition. Your spokesperson, Dr. Michael Hale said that the DHBs had not developed a position on a sugary beverage tax, but "The Coalition" would like to draw attention to the statements of the WHO, the Australian Medical Association and our dental colleagues and partners on this intervention.
Only one DHB confirmed that he had previously asked the government to consider a sugar tax. In 2015, Hauora Tairāwhiti wrote to former Health Minister Jonathan Coleman and asked him to consider a tax. Chairman David Scott said that nearly 40 percent of the DHB's population is obese and "this rogue should be restricted from the onset of the disease".
"We have the highest percentage of infant extraction in the country, which unfortunately has to do with babies and toddlers who first get sweetened drinks through a baby bottle," Scott wrote.
Clark was unavailable for an interview, but said in a statement that the government had no immediate plans for a tax on sugary foods or drinks.
"We promised the public that we will not introduce new taxes in our first term and instead seek ways to reduce the amount of sugar in processed foods and beverages and develop a better labeling system."
Clark said he had met with the food industry and they were clear about his concerns about the obesity epidemic and his desire to see less sugar in our food.
"It's clear from these meetings that some companies are already taking a step towards low-sugar products, they're doing it overseas, they know what that looks like and they want the world to move faster in that direction."
A report commissioned by the Ministry of Health, completed in October 2017, proved the evidence of a sugar tax was inconclusive. The New Zealand Initiative think tank and other opponents of a tax argue that studies on which tax proponents rely heavily overestimate how much taxes would reduce consumption.
Sir Peter Gluckman, until recently Chief Science Advisor to the Prime Minister, said RNZ Last month, evidence of a sugar tax in countries like New Zealand has become much stronger in recent years. A report to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern outlined this change.
Former Prime Minister Helen Clark has called for a sugar tax and says that lobbying against such measures "recalls the way the tobacco industry has fought against taxation and regulation."
The NZ Beverage Council, representing the manufacturers, could not be reached for comment.