As the number of children hospitalised for tooth decay reaches new peaks, the Greens are renewing calls for the purveyors of sugary drinks to be treated like tobacco companies.
That included restrictions on the advertising and sale of such drinks to children, and high rates of taxation.
Ministry of Health figures show the rate of hospitalisation for dental caries, or basic tooth decay, in under 19-year-olds, had increased 13 per cent over the six years to June 30 2014.
That represented a total leap from 5674 child hospitalisations in the 2008-09 financial year, to 6471 in 2013-14.
“It’s pretty shocking and it’s going in the wrong direction, so we need proactive Government intervention now,” said Green Party health spokeswoman Julie Anne Genter.
“One will involve something like a sugary drink tax, which is being recommended by the World Health Organisation.
“But it also needs to be treated like tobacco; there needs to be taxation, restrictions on advertising and marketing, getting the stuff out of all hospitals and other public buildings.”
Her comments coincide with renewed calls this week from the WHO, for countries to consider introducing a sugar tax.
A report from the WHO said a minimum tax of 20 resulted in reduced sales and consumption of sugary drinks. People consumed fewer “free sugars” such as fructose and glucose, took in fewer calories and reduced their risk of tooth decay.
But the Government has repeatedly ruled out a sugar taxing, citing a lack of conclusive evidence. Health Minister Jonathan Coleman said that position had not changed.
Implementing the Childhood Obesity Plan was a “key focus”.
“We have introduced the Health Star Rating Scheme and industry are themselves doing a range of activities including reformulation and portion size reduction to promote healthier eating,” he said.
The Ministry of Health was hosting an industry forum next week, where it was expected that industry would commit to “high level pledges designed to help drive further change”.
But Coleman said fluoridation “widely acknowledged by health and dental experts” as the biggest initiative to prevent tooth decay.
In April this year, Coleman announced proposed legislative changes to place the responsibility of adding fluoride to town water supplies with District Health Boards, rather than local councils.
A bill is yet to be put before Parliament, but Coleman hoped to have the legislation introduced by Christmas.
He said fluoridation as “one of the greatest public health achievements in the 20th century”.
“Evidence tells us that children with access to fluoridated water experience 40 per cent reduction in dental decay.
“If the Greens are really interested in addressing tooth decay they would strongly advocate for water fluoridation in New Zealand.”
Genter said research from Nelson Marlborough District Health Board principal dental officer Rob Beaglehole showed the cost of treating and individual case of tooth decay under anaesthetic ran close to $4000.
“The proceeds from a sugar tax should be used to fund health awareness and promotion, there should also be restrictions on advertising and marketing and a ban on selling sugary drinks in particular in public buildings,” she said.
“Ultimately the junk food industry is a culprit and we need to treat them like tobacco companies.”