Thursday 5 July 2018

Winning hearts and minds

Sunday morning's pleasant brunch at home wound up having me shushing the kids a bit more than usual. 

After universities, think tanks and sector groups are the next most prolific contributors of opinion pieces.

And well out in front among those is The New Zealand Initiative – a think tank funded in the main by the country’s leading corporates. The think tank has a weekly column in the National Business Review, a fortnightly one on and in 2017 published about 40 op-eds in the country’s newspapers. The Council of Trade Unions by comparison had 10 or so op-eds published last year.

The NZ Initiative op-eds tend to be well researched and strident. Here’s how its chief economist Eric Crampton began an op-ed on Stuff back in March:

"To begin with, sugar taxes are offensive. They presume that some government official knows better than you about what food choices are best for you. And when we think about how they're generally aimed at things like soda rather than expensive coffee drinks, they're also deeply classist. They presume poor people are too dumb to make the 'right' choices and must be guided by their betters."

And he concluded that piece with a dig at some Otago University public health academic who had written in support of sugar taxes.

"It is time that public health activists simply admitted that they got this one wrong and left us alone."

Despite describing public health professors as activists there was no disclosure on his own op-ed acknowledging that the New Zealand Initiative membership includes Coca Cola – a vocal opponent of sugar taxes internationally – plus the major supermarket chains.

On a subsequent op-ed on the NZME-owned Eric Crampton included this disclosure:

"The Initiative is funded by a broad range of corporate members including ones the Otago People wouldn’t like. Their membership has zero influence on my views of the Otago People’s work."

So things can get a little testy in the op-ed world. ...
While I do like that Radio NZ online has linked to the opeds, that's of little benefit to listeners who might be surprised to find out that the bulk of the Dom Post piece was about the Ministry of Health's advice on sugar taxes and the literature review that MoH commissioned from NZIER.

Both of those reached the same conclusions I have about sugar taxes.

Here's the bit Radio NZ didn't excerpt:
But don't just take my word for it.

The Ministry of Health commissioned the NZIER (New Zealand Institute of Economic Research) to review the literature on sugar taxes around the world.

NZIER found little effect of sugar taxes on consumption, and no evidence of health benefits.

And documents released to the New Zealand Initiative by the Ministry of Health showed that the ministry had reached a very similar conclusion about sugar taxes, advising the minister that there is "insufficient evidence that a sugar tax would be effective in reducing obesity".

The ministry also warned that the quality of evidence presented in favour of sugar taxes "is a major concern".

All of that means that, even if sugar taxes were easy to implement (and they are far from easy to implement), there would still be no good reason to do it.

It is time that public health activists simply admitted that they got this one wrong and left us alone.
Radio listeners could be forgiven for being led to believe that I hadn't put up any evidence in support of my views and that my views were based only on our membership. They might be surprised to see that the whole thing was based on publicly funded work.

Apparently my pointing to the Ministry's work on this stuff needs some kind of health warning, but all the anti-sugar advocates who either ignore that work or make such a hash of reporting on it that you wonder why NZIER hasn't sued them for libel - that doesn't need a health warning.

Anyway, all of it led to former-Prime Minster Helen Clark being mad on Twitter.

I don't know that I won any hearts or minds in the exchange, but I had my fun.

Clark punted to public health advocate Sudhvir Singh when I asked what specific problems she could point to in either MoH's work or NZIER's; he pointed to a table of jurisdictions that have implemented taxes and some estimates of effects, but wouldn't provide any detail on whether NZIER botched anything in their review. She also endorsed Swinburn in pointing to the Otago blog post that criticised NZIER for not including publications that were outside of the commissioned review window.

NZIER report author Sarah Hogan waits still for a reply on this one.
This also amused me.
For my sins, my Twitter notifications window are filled with public health zealots retweeting and liking Helen Clark's ponderings about the price of soda and bottled water; none of them seem to have noticed the links to prices at Countdown.*

Just look at this hot mess.

Defeat Sodatron? Barking. Absolutely barking. One for Chris Snowdon's slippery slopes file.

* And yes I know water can be more expensive than Coke in some dairies or petrol stations - that's just the local retailer having some local pricing power, knowing their market, and knowing that the kind of people who want to buy water are pretty price inelastic at that point. They could always choose to stock the cheaper varieties at lower price points if they wanted.

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