By Eric Crampton 08/03/2018

For the past several years, public health lobbyists have pretended that all opposition to sugar taxes is ideologically motivated or dishonest. They have argued that the only thing stopping the government from implementing their beneficent proposals has been the actions of nefarious interest groups.

And so it is interesting to read what the Ministry of Health’s officials actually thought about sugar taxes.

I requested the Ministry’s advice under OIA. They provided it. And it shows that the Ministry’s officials raised the same concerns that we did, and that NZIER did, about sugar taxes. The Ministry’s advice to Minister Coleman was consistent also with Treasury’s warnings about sugar taxes – warnings that the public health people tried to discourage Health officials from considering (see document #34).

Overall, the Ministry worried that measured effects of sugar taxes on consumption were unreliable (but likely small) and that there was no evidence of health benefits from sugar taxes. I summarise the 37 released documents at the link above, and link through to each one. Draw your own conclusions.

Boyd Swinburn’s oped in the Herald last week had a lot of problems. But the most insulting of them was his insistence that those opposing sugar taxes are “merchants of doubt”. He didn’t name any names, possibly because he knows about defamation law. But I was the one who OIAed the NZIER document that he’s mad about, and I was the one who made sure that it received the attention it deserved.

And it turns out that my read of the evidence matched how folks in the Ministry of Health were reading things.

There were folks in the Ministry whose views were closer to Swinburn’s, and it’s awfully fun reading through the OIA to see the ones who are literate in economics trying to get ever more simplified versions of John Gibson’s work in hopes that those without an economics background might understand what’s going on.

I have no doubt that Swinburn, and his friends, are sincere in their beliefs. I do not believe that they are only pitching their theories because they are troughers wanting ever-greater public health grants. They are just honestly and sincerely wrong.

It could be fair for them to argue that NZIER, the Ministry of Health, Treasury and the Initiative are all wrong on sugar taxes. But when a diverse group reaches the same kind of conclusion on something, it is kinda stupid to argue that it’s because of nefarious interests. It’s sadly effective, but still pretty disappointing behaviour.

Please keep this episode in mind the next time that the public health crowd runs the ad hominem play when they disagree with me.