No, we mustn’t blame parents for fattening their brats – Prof Swinburn says it’s the Govt’s fault

So we have spawned a nation of fat brats and – guess what? – it’s the Government’s fault.

Yep. the country’s sprogs have been getting steadily fatter, according to new Ministry of Health figures. They show 85,000 Kiwi kids are now obese.

The full report can be read here.

Alf won’t be bothering. He is content with the information he gleaned from TVNZ in their report here.

First, let’s look at the figures.

The latest New Zealand Health Survey update showed one in nine (11.1%) children aged 2-14 is obese.

This is a small increase on the previous year’s survey, which showed 10.5% of children were obese, but a marked increase on the 2006/2007 survey, which showed 8.4% of children struggled with their weight.

Pacific children are significantly more likely to be overweight, with one in four considered obese, the 2012/2013 update showed.

Adjusting for age and sex differences, Pacific children were three times as likely as non-Pacific children to be obese.

Maori children were more than twice as likely to be overweight, with one in five obese.

Children living in what the survey described as deprived areas were three times as likely to have problems with their weight than children living in the least deprived areas.

And now let’s find someone to blame other than the parents who are directly responsible – or should be – for the dietary behaviour of their tubby offspring.

It can only be [drum roll]…

The Government.

Yep. Auckland University professor Boyd Swinburn, described by TVNZ as an obesity expert, reckons the rise in obese children shows childhood prevention programmes and policies are “clearly failing this generation”.

“Pulling the plug on funding for the Healthy Eating Healthy Action programmes and allowing the junk food industry free rein over our young kiwis is unfortunately creating a sad legacy of increasing diabetes and chronic diseases,” he said.

“This government has progressively disinvested in obesity prevention, especially in programmes promoting healthy food choices, and key policies recommended by the World Health Organisation, such as restricting unhealthy food marketing to children and having healthy food policies in schools, remain unimplemented.”

So can he prescribe a simple remedy?

Sure he can.

Experts can always prescribe simple remedies.

Taxes on sugar-sweetened drinks and junk food and a traffic light system on food packaging are cost-effective interventions the Government could implement, Mr Swinburn said.

“New Zealand needs to get back into the forefront of public health to stop this rise in childhood obesity.”

Radio NZ (here) described Swinburn as a professor of population nutrition at Auckland University in a report which reiterated his view that the Government is failing today’s corpulent kids.

Professor Swinburn says the figure is shocking compared with almost one in four children in Australia.

But Health Minister Tony Ryall – splendid feller – says the Government can pass all the laws it likes, but unless people eat less and exercise more, things will not change.

Alf would have thought an expert would know this.

He moreover thought an expert would have some knowledge of the Danish government’s introducing a policy never before seen in the world.

It implemented an across-the-board tax on all foods with a saturated fat content above 2.3 percent, with the hopes of reducing consumption of unhealthy foods.

But as we all now know, it didn’t quite work that way.

The Washington Post reported (here) –

Some Danes did indeed switch to lower fat cheeses and dairy products, The Wall Street Journal’s Clemens Bomsdorf reports. But a lot of them simply began to do their grocery shopping internationally, heading to countries that didn’t levy a fine on fat:

There is little evidence the tax impacted consumers financially, but it did spark a shift in consumer habits. Many Danes have bought lower-cost alternatives, or in some cases hopped the border to Germany, where prices are roughly 20% lower, or to Sweden.

Of course, this Swinburn feller will simply retort that we Kiwis can’t drive over the border to shop somewhere else.

But economists tell us (here) that the negative consequences of putting ‘sin taxes’ on products when demand is inelastic are well known.

Almost invariably, they hurt the poor more than the rich. They encourage black market activity and cross-border shopping. They lead to compensatory purchasing and brand switching. Although it is politically expedient to portray them as ‘nudges’ designed to improve society or compensate for negative externalities, they typically act as stealth taxes while doing little to reduce harmful consumption.

‘Public health’ campaigners tend to sweep these drawbacks under the carpet. From their narrow perspective, anything that might improve health is worth doing. Since higher prices can usually be expected to reduce consumption, they have used a variety of computer models to ‘prove’ that taxing sugar, salt and fat will reduce obesity. Unintended consequences are wished away or dismissed as mere ‘industry arguments’.

Occasionally, however, wishful thinking must come face-to-face with reality. Denmark’s tax on saturated fat was hailed as a world-leading public health policy when it was introduced in October 2011, but was abandoned as an economic and political disaster fifteen months later.

Its ignominious demise is discussed in a report, The Proof of the Pudding: Denmark’s fat tax fiasco, which offers important lessons for politicians who are under pressure to levy ‘health-related’ taxes on fat, sugar, ‘junk food’ and fizzy drinks.

The economic effects of the fat tax in Denmark were uniformly negative. At least ten per cent of fat tax revenues were swallowed up in administrative costs and it was estimated to have cost 1,300 Danish jobs. The fat tax did, however, raise more money than expected, but this only goes to show that it reduced the amount of high-calorie food sold by less than was anticipated. Opinion polls showed that 80 per cent of Danes did not change their shopping habits at all as a result of the tax. The impact on the nation’s waistline is therefore likely to have been approximately zero. The main effect on shopping habits was to push people over the border to Germany and Sweden where prices were lower.

But concerns about job losses and the cost of living seem to be of no interest to the food zealots.

Mind you, they don’t have to stand for re-election.

But for we politicians, Denmark’s fat tax fiasco provides a splendid lesson in how economically inefficient, regressive and unpopular sin taxes are.

6 Responses to No, we mustn’t blame parents for fattening their brats – Prof Swinburn says it’s the Govt’s fault

  1. robertguyton says:

    Alf – I’m not on your ‘daily round-up’ – wtf?

    • Alf Grumble says:

      And wtf does your question have to do with the fattening of our offspring? It’s a reasonable question nevertheless, Robert. The matter will be discussed at the Eketahuna Club tonight to see if Alf’s mates consider you worthy of promotion from the “Supplementary Brain Fodder” department. But your taste in ties (here) looks likely to count against you.

  2. robertguyton says:

    My apologies for the ties, Alf. If owning them disqualifies me from inclusion in your list, it’s no more than I deserve. Some of those ties are shockers!
    Sugar – it’s a killer.

  3. Alf Grumble says:

    You are on my list, Robert. You are on my “supplementary brain fodder” list of recommended blogs, slotted nicely between Stephen Franks and The Inquiring Mind, which puts you in august company (although you might feel you are being sandwiched between two right-leaning thinkers). As for your wheelchair argument, the disabled folks familiar to Alf keep insisting they want to be treated like anybody else. Dunno much about beaten women, except that Mrs Grumble can be beaten at scrabble on a good night.

  4. robertguyton says:

    They’re happy with steps, rather than ramps leading into shops?
    Mrs Grumble, btw, is letting you win, it’s plain.

    • Alf Grumble says:

      It’s the season of peace and good will to all men, Robert (and yes, good will to all sheilas, too). That snide stuff about Mrs Grumble letting her husband win would have been better left unsaid.

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