31st January 2018

Sugar leads to obesity. This fact and a new study by the University of Waikato's School of Food and Nutrition are driving a renewed interest in a New Zealand sugar tax. The study has sparked a debate and has made headlines across Asia Pacific.

University of Waikato's study: What did it investigate? What were the results?

In the study, the sugar content of non-alcoholic beverages produced in New Zealand, Australia, Britain and Canada were compared.

"We compared the nutritional content, particularly focusing on the sugar content of beverages. The interesting find is that New Zealand basically has the highest sugar content across the majority of categories compared to other countries," said University of Waikato’s Dr Lynne Chepulis.

According to Chepulis, New Zealand fruit juices or sodas typically contained up to five or six teaspoons of sugar per beverage, while United Kingdom sugary drinks had up to three or four teaspoons. That means New Zealand drinks contained nearly double the amount of sugar.

Support for a New Zealand sugar tax

One organisation that backs the sugar tax is the New Zealand Dental Association. Sugar is a major cause of tooth decay, and the study clearly shows that New Zealand non-alcoholic beverages contain an excessive amount of sugar.

New Zealand Dental Association’s spokesman Dr. Rob Beaglehole said, "An end to the confusion around 'sugar per 100mls' is within our grasp. We're asking for a sugary drink icon. This would clearly let consumers know how many teaspoons of sugar are in their drink."

In addition to a sugary drink icon, Beaglehole said New Zealand schools should also enforce water-only policies. 

Whether the government will take action and levy the tax is yet to be determined. When asked about a New Zealand sugar tax last October, Health Minister David Clark said he would not rule it out. “All options are on the table,” he said.

The sugar tax trend around the world

New Zealand is not the first country to consider imposing a tax on sugary beverages.

"We've seen many countries address sugary drink consumption by adding a levy on the price of sugary drinks. The UK is introducing one in April this year,” noted Dr. Rob Beaglehole.

Announced in 2016, the UK’s soon to be implemented sugar tax was designed to help reduce child obesity. The tax will raise an estimated NZ $983, which will help fund sports in primary schools across the country.

Dr. Chepulis also looks to the UK for a model to implement the sugar tax, "I'm a proponent of the whole sugar tax if it is passed on at the manufacturer level, and I think the UK model is evident. If you bring in a sugar tax it can actually make a significant improvement on the nutritional quality of those sugar sweetened beverages."

With all the support for tax, there are skeptics, including policy analyst Jenesa Jeram, who says there is no ground for introducing a sugar tax.

"The trend for introducing sugar taxes overseas is growing faster than the evidence base that the tax will reduce obesity. The evidence that is coming in is that manufacturers who reformulate their products face the risk of consumer backlash. Rather than jumping on the bandwagon, New Zealand should be waiting to see whether the sugar taxes overseas are actually improving health outcomes,” said Jeram.