More health troughers score big from the Marsden Fund

Another set of health troughers has been revealed to be attacking food and drink manufacturers and all funded by the Marsden Fund.

A “sin tax” on unhealthy items is often touted as a way to stop people having them so often, but it might drive them to cheaper brands.

A team led by a University of Waikato researcher has just received $800,000 to study the idea, focusing on sugary soft drinks and cigarettes.

And while the data they’ll analyse doesn’t come from New Zealand, the findings have implications for Kiwis.

Economics professor John Gibson is leading a team looking into whether a “sin tax” would bring down consumption of fizzy drink and cigarettes.

It was one of four Waikato-led projects to receive funding from the Marsden Fund, and reaped $805,000.

“There are New Zealand studies which say 20 per cent fizzy drink tax would save X number of lives and those are the studies we have some questions about,” Gibson said.

There was a loophole in data which focused on spend rather than quantity bought, he said.

“They might simply go from drinking expensive Coke to either cheaper Coke . . . or they might go from Coke down to Pams or Homebrand,” he said.

For instance, Countdown sells a 600ml bottle of Coca Cola for $3.99 whereas 1.25L of Homebrand Lemonade is just 97 cents.

“The existing studies assume the reduction in spending translates to a reduction in quantity,” Gibson said.  

He suspects a tax would drive people to search out products that give a better bang for their buck.

And if consumption isn’t going down the predicted benefits won’t be there, he said.

“That’s why [knowing the effects] matters quite a lot to Treasury, Ministry of Health.”

Data for the three-year study is coming from Mexico and Indonesia as the right information wasn’t available here, he said.

Research indicated taxes could influence people’s health behaviour in the long term, Emma Sinclair of Emma’s Food Bag said.

This is the thing that galls me the most. These health troughers get government funding to study things they have already made their mind up about, then use the state funded research to bash up the very people who funded them in the first place, the taxpaying manufacturers.

They are of course aided and abetted by politicians who think that only these guys should be allowed to speak on matters related and mount with-hunts from within the protections of parliament against people who do challenge and confront these state funded troughers and their very often whack ideas.

Instead of attacking critics in parliament perhaps Kevin Hague might like to look at the batshit crazy statements of troughers like Doug Sellman, who thinks Foodstuffs are like drug dealers, and Boyd Swinburn who uses his grant monies to swan around the world sharing his “wisdom”.

Kevin Hague wants to shut down debate, I want to encourage it.

This should be a wake up call to corporates who think if they shiver in fear and say nothing then these troughers will leave their businesses alone. Think again, they are well funded, with your own taxes and they are coming for you!

No blonde doris training in marketing sitting outside the CEOs office is ever going to compete with well funded troughers with the media in their pockets.


– Fairfax


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  • Laidback chap

    It always surprises me that these researchers seem to forget that price drives behaviour. Also I have the ability to make own dodgy stuff. Grow my own tobacco, sugary fix through my Soda Stream machine, and my alcoholic fix through my homebrew beer ($20 makes me 28 Litres).

    • Platinum Fox

      It is amazing that anyone would propose a percentage tax on products with such a diverse range of prices, let alone have studied the possible effects.
      The only way that a sugar tax could be designed to have any realistic chance of delivering a reduction in consumption would be to eliminate the possibility of consumers seeking cheaper alternatives.
      A tax applied on the same basis as excise is levied on alcohol might achieve a reduction in sugar consumption as it would have a more marked effect on cheaper priced products, but to be fully effective it would need to be applied to all sugar not just to soft drinks containing sugar.
      A far simpler solution would be to educate people to exercise personal responsibility and make better choices.

  • dennis

    I am getting really fed up with these so called academics receiving money ( I assume it’s mine) to study the obvious then try and arrogantly tell me what to do, eat, breath and drink. It’s about time they did a study on encouraging personal responsibility. They should look at charging air fares by weight, or an excess fee if you go to hospital because of a weight related problem or going to the bottom of the waiting list for medical treatment etc etc.

    • As a person who did a lot of my research at a post-graduate level what always amused me was that research (at least into the human condition) is the science of the obvious. We know the results before we start (or have a very good idea) and then go on to test our hypothesis. That it costs such a lot of money to evaluate what anyone with half a brain already knows is a profligate waste but then again at least we will have ’empirical evidence’ to support common sense. That’s got to be a good thing … right ????
      Until another group of scientists are funded by Coca Cola for example, to produce another study that will produce a diametrically opposite result.

  • Grocersgirl

    I can tell them now that if they increased the price of a packet of cigarettes to $100 fewer people would buy them. There would be more hold-ups of garages and dairies however….

  • Jas

    Why those 2 countries? I can think of 3 factors that will make the study useless just now. Climate, alcohol and spending power.

    • Cowgirl

      They also have to factor in the fact that Coca Cola has a plant in Mexico, so the whole country will be awash with the stuff and it will probably be quite cheap.

  • metalnwood

    NZ has an obesity rate about 31%, mexico is similar but Indonesia is around 5%.

    I am not sure how statistics from indonesia will help us as their patterns are obviously different. They can’t seem to drink a lot of coke to the point of getting fat so how they change habits may be different from us. Similary to mexico, similar obesity rate but quite different economics.

    With $800K why can’t they set up a sample group that does it locally with results that will give a better indication of what would happen here?

  • R&BAvenger

    Poor people make poor choices. Stupid people also make stupid choices. It’s always easier to blame someone else for the poor choices you’ve made that have resulted in poor health outcomes/obesity etc.
    It’s hard to form new/better habits. people like to take the easy option and suffer the consequences of always taking the easy option.
    What I find abhorrent is when the choices are made by parents of young children. The parents give in or let children have lollies and fizzy drink and then we have the site of children under anaesthetic to have their teeth removed as shown on the Latta programme and also recently on Prime, just on Monday.
    Still they blame the manufacturers and want to introduce a fizzy/sweet tax rather than focussing on helping the parents.
    Making good choices is often harder than not doing so, but your outcomes in life generally will work out for the better. Discipline around food/treats choices would be a start.
    Our parents had one type of treat only (and only occasionally) and that was Buzz Bars. they it was a chocolate Easter egg for Easter, maybe something for Christmas or your birthday if you got lucky.
    The sweets and fizzy drink were there, but may parents rarely bought them.

    • Whitey

      I agree it’s often harder to make good choices than bad ones (especially with convenience foods which are, well, convenient), but how is it hard to not give your kids sweeties and fizzy drink? Fizzy drink is actually less convenient than tap water.

  • Notrotsky

    It beggars belief that they need to study these things.

    Isn’t the data already available to suggest that rising the price by x% of a certain product causes a variance in sales of x%. I regularly hear from the anti smoking lobby that increase in price of cigarettes has been the single most effective factor in decreasing smoking.

  • DangerousE

    With ever increasing taxes on cigarettes, plus more education about how bad they are equals a shift in society from once quite acceptable to now not so. No need for a study on that one. Basic economics will tell you if taxes go up people will look to the cheaper brands, I do that every time I go to the supermarket. Why do you think every food producer has contracts with pams, homebrand, budget etc. How about they stop wasting taxpayer money on studies we already know the answers to, and look at ways to tell people that they need to wake up to themselves, that there personal choices are what will lead them to an early grave. A shift in culture is what we need, more people accepting responsibility for themselves instead of playing the victim and being ably abetted by academics and politicians, and corporates for that matter too.

  • Steve H

    Once again we have a post ranting about state-funded studies. How else are we meant to determine whether or not a particular policy is going to work? Certainly the private sector would never produce such a study.

    Most people here seem to be opposed to the concept of a sin tax on the grounds that it would not work. Instead of ranting about troughers, why not encourage this kind of study which, if you are correct, will put the policy to bed once and for all?

    • Cowgirl

      Some thoughts:
      1) as stated above, it appears the “health troughers” have already made their mind up about the results beforehand, rather than letting the data speak;
      2) it doesn’t look like this study is going to tell us anything we don’t already know, as evidenced by the fact it is going to include cigarette tax – the results of which should already be well known. I also call into question how helpful it will be to use data from countries with vastly different cultures from our own;
      3) don’t kid yourself that this will be the end of this line of study. The fact that we are still having studies telling us that smoking increases the likelihood you will get lung cancer, proves this. This is merely the beginning of a whole new spurious avenue for researchers to go down if they want to keep getting funding.
      Don’t get me wrong, I think some studies are useful and deserve funding, but I’m sick of having the same old, same old ideas being regurgitated from them. The fact is, I don’t believe that sin taxes really worked in the case of cigarettes – they were just part of a solution that included greater awareness of health effects, and public attitudinal changes. If the sin tax alone worked, no one would smoke. The same needs to happen with sugary drinks and fast foods, a sin tax alone won’t be enough – people actually have to make better choices about wanting to eat healthy, and if they don’t, they will just buy cheaper brands. If this study comes up with any new information that suggests otherwise, I’d be very much surprised.

      • Steve H

        Thanks for the reply.

        1) Gibson (who I happen to know personally, for openness sake) has indicated that he anticipates finding that sin taxes DON’T work due to substitution. Surely this is the exact opposite of what health troughers would want him to find?

        2) I agree about it being pointless to include cigarettes and am equally dubious of using other countries. I’m in an industry where we have dismissed studies completed overseas for similar reasons.

        3) Yeah, fair point. Perhaps the Marsden fund should look at projects with more scrutiny. I’d suggest that a proper analysis of the substitution effect when faced by a sin tax would be very valuable however. Focus it in NZ and on groceries.

        The irony of all this is that the actual discussion of whether this policy is worth doing is being had in the comments section. Slater seems happy to just spin it as ‘troughing’ and tangentially rant about politicians he doesn’t like, rather than actually critiquing the study itself.

  • alt_view

    A quarter of that amount could be used to study and explain why if we pay the international price for milk as Fonterra told us a few years ago that with the recent plunge in prices the milk still costs the same at the supermarket.
    If there is any money left over maybe explain why Oil price is down 25% in the last few months but that is not reflected at the pump.

  • JC

    All such studies are invalidated if equal weight is not put on the *benefits* of the object studied.

    So if a study finds 80% of people use more sugar than is considered good for them this is a massive benefit that can’t be ignored. But if its decided that only 20% are overusing sugar but 100% have to pay a tax.. where’s the justice and the sense?

    Education and other improvements are the answer and I’ve got some pretty startling facts that show how things can improve..

    Take a Maori male in 1951.. his life expectancy was 54 years.. in 2010/12 it was 72. Thats close to the most unhealthy group in the country yet this is a major increase in life expectancy as these blokes started to understand how their lifestyles were killing them.. does anyone really think just taxes on smokes and beer accounted for the improvement?

    Education at home and school works.. even if the parents are duffers the TV can provide a pretty continuous stream of messages that the health people want to get across and of course the schools capture them for such messages as well.