Monday 26 August 2019


A rather one-sided piece over at the ODT points me to a new short book from the Otago Public Health shop. 

Let's take these in turn.

The ODT piece has Bruce Munro gush over Otago public health's David Skegg and Skegg's latest book, published by Bridget Williams (of course). The basic thrust of the piece is that noble public health academics have been trying for policies that they know will reduce all the harms from alcohol, and smoking, and sugar, and that only the nefarious actions of shadowy interests group stand in the way. Munro hits all the usual tropes - the purported $7.8b social costs of alcohol, the power of the liquor companies, Katherine Rich, Dirty Politics, and me.
Yet, despite health researchers calling for a tax on sugary drinks to slow the epidemic, New Zealand governments, left and right, have been reluctant to go there.

"In Britain, even the Tory Government has introduced a sugar tax. But, again, our Minister of Health has repeatedly said there are no plans to do that in New Zealand," Sir David says with exasperation.

Lobbying against a sugar tax has been the Food and Grocery Council, and the New Zealand Initiative.

The New Zealand Initiative is a think tank that boasts of its reach and influence.

"It was a year in which the Initiative once again left its mark on New Zealand's political debates and public policy," the Initiative's latest annual report states.

Its chief economist, Dr Eric Crampton, is a former academic known for his attacks on public health initiatives, Sir David says.

According to the Initiative website, Dr Crampton wrote or spoke about a sugar tax half a dozen times during 2018.

But, says Sir David, "when Dr Crampton writes an opinion piece arguing that sugar taxes would be `offensive' and ineffective, he does not mention that his organisation is partly funded by Coca-Cola Amatil and the supermarket chains".
I wish that I could take the credit here for killing a bad policy, but I really can't. The main work actually has come from, well, those I cite as the very next paragraphs down in the piece Skegg's mentioning.

Here's the bit he didn't mention:
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.
See, it isn't just shadowy interests that don't like sugar taxes. It's also the OIAed documents from MoH and the NZIER's report commissioned by MoH. And both of those supported by Marsden-funded work by Waikato University's Professor John Gibson showing that estimates of the effects of sugar taxes on consumption are grossly overstated.

The piece ran in the ODT's weekend magazine. I sent my reply to the ODT just after lunch on Monday. They finally ran my reply today - one week after receiving it. I expect I'd have been making a Press Council complaint if they hadn't.

Unfortunately, the ODT stripped out all of the links to the underlying work in their online version. And they, of course, will not put a link to my rebuttal at the bottom of Munro's piece. Because Otago will Otago.

Here's the full text, with the links.

The dangers of superhero thinking
Superhero movies have had something of a comeback over the past decade, seeming to be one of the surest ways of generating a decent box-office take. But tropes of noble heroes and venal villains are not the best way of understanding the world. And they do us a specific disservice when they cross over into newspaper reporting.

This weekend, Bruce Munro wrote a fantastic story of sugar tax heroes and villains in the Otago Daily Times’ magazine. The heroes are the crusading public health research activists, who have only noble intentions and know that sugar taxes will do all manner of good. The shadowy villains on the other side – paid lobbyists – thwart the crusaders’ vision of a healthier country.

If only things were that simple.

My opposition to sugar taxes had me cast among the villains in Munro’s article. Otago University’s David Skegg noted that I have been rather vocal about sugar taxes recently, and implied that my opposition has pecuniary motivation: I am Chief Economist with The New Zealand Initiative, a think tank whose member-funders consist of many of the country’s top companies, including Coca-Cola and the supermarkets. Our members are listed on our website and are hardly secret.

But neither Munro nor Skegg bother to mention any of the substantial concerns raised across the columns and interviews they cite as damning me. If they had bothered to read those columns, they might have noticed that the tallying of heroes and villains is more complicated than they like to pretend.

In January 2018, the Ministry of Health released to me, after an Official Information Act request, a report it had commissioned from the New Zealand Institute for Economic Research (NZIER). The Ministry had asked NZIER to review the past five years of published literature on sugar taxes and to gauge their effectiveness. Having received the report in August 2017, the Ministry then sat on it – an election was underway, and the Ministry needed a Minister to receive the report before releasing it publicly.

The NZIER report – which was, again, funded and commissioned by the Ministry of Health – reached the same conclusion as previous work by the Initiative. NZIER concluded that methodologically rigorous studies on sugar taxes “report reductions in intake that are likely too small to generate health benefits”, and that any benefit of those reductions could easily be swamped by consumers shifting to other sources of sugar or calories.

NZIER also weighed heavily research underway at Waikato University by Professor John Gibson, my former Canterbury University colleague. His work on sugar taxes, supported by the Royal Society’s Marsden Fund, shows that many estimates of consumer responsiveness to sugar taxes are simply incorrect. Gibson gave a superb presentation on this work when he was awarded a well-deserved Distinguished Fellowship with the New Zealand Association of Economists in 2017.

Further Ministry of Health documents provided under the OIA included a presentation by the Ministry of Health titled “Sugar Tax: Why we still don’t have one. There, the Ministry noted: “There is no evidence that sugar taxes reduce obesity or obesity-related illness.” While the presentation did not note any industry pressure influencing the Ministry’s position, it did point to “[p]ressure in NZ from health academics” and the media.

Overall, the NZIER report and the set of papers released under OIA showed a different picture to Munro’s tallying of heroes and villains. Where Skegg suggests only shadowy interest groups oppose Otago public health’s crusade for sugar taxes, we find instead a Ministry of Health sceptical of the merits of sugar taxes, and a Ministry-commissioned report that lends substantial weight to that scepticism.

I have summarised the NZIER report and the Ministry documents in columns and interviews over the past year. When the Ministry of Health’s then-Chief Science Advisor, Dr John Potter, provided the Prime Minister with two pages of bullet points in support of sugar taxes, and forgot to mention that the Ministry had only two weeks earlier released the NZIER report reaching the opposite conclusion, I noted that as well. It seemed a rather underhand attempt to mislead the Prime Minister.

Universities are meant to be places where ideas can be contested in the pursuit of truth. When public health academics convince themselves that only the shadowy workings of lobbyists can explain why their ideas have not been implemented, and ignore any piece of evidence that does not fit their worldview, it becomes difficult for them to pursue truth.

Superhero tropes where valiant public health crusaders battle evil vested interests may sell movie tickets and newspapers. But they do not help us to understand, let alone fix, real world problems.

Dr Eric Crampton is Chief Economist with the New Zealand Initiative. The Initiative is funded by the subscriptions of its members, who are listed on the Initiative’s website. The breadth of its membership protects its independence.
Okay. And now over to the BWB book.

Here's Skegg:

So it looks like the Munro piece is mostly just pulling from the BWB book. He's citing the same piece over at the Dom that he mentions in the Munro piece, and again ignores the very next paragraph citing NZIER's work and the Ministry of Health, keeping his heroes and villains framing. 

Otago is an embarrassment. And Bridget Williams Books needs to improve its refereeing. I refereed Julie Fry and Peter Wilson's book on immigration for them, and went through things in rather some depth. I guess that they handed this one to an Otago Person for refereeing instead, but who knows. 

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