Food, culture, regulation….and a walk with the kids

Spurred by a Herald article yesterday, my kids and I went for a walk (well, we do most days but this one had a specific purpose).  The newspaper was reporting  new Auckland university research showing –  shock, horror – that.

“Sixty-nine per cent of urban schools have a convenience store within 800m and 62 per cent have a fast-food or takeaway shop in that distance”

Frankly, I was surprised the number was that low, but then in Wellington one finds small schools in all sorts of odd nooks and crannies.  My three kids now go to three different schools, and each of the schools has shops nearby.  But, as it was nearest, we walked around the area that encircles my youngest child’s decile 10 primary school.  And what did we find?

On the first corner:

  • a dairy
  • a specialist pie shop

On the next corner:

  • two dairies
  • a Chinese takeaway
  • the Empire Cinema, with its neighbourhood café and gelato outlet

And then in the main shopping area

  • the supermarket, (as the kids pointed out, it was chock full of all sorts of stuff, “good” and perhaps “not so good”)
  • a Hell Pizza outlet
  • two fairly casual daytime cafes with plenty of take-out options
  • a combination fish and chip shop/Chinese takeaway
  • the video (and Post) shop, with lots of sweet and savoury nibbles
  • an Indian takeaway
  • another dairy
  • a lunch-bar/bakery
  • the butcher –  bacon and cheerios don’t score well on the “disapproval” lists, and that is before getting onto the question of red meat.

And that was without including the:

  • bottle store and bar, and
  • three other evening-focused restaurants, two offering take-out
  • and a couple of arty galleries/shops selling quite good chocolate.

But so what?  If 70 per cent of urban schools are close to at least one convenience or takeaway outlet, isn’t that simply telling us that our schools are typically in the heart of our neighbourhoods.  Which is probably where they should be.   And I’d be surprised if the number of dairies and takeaway places has changed much in the almost 40 years since I was getting off the school bus at one of these corners (although there was no gelato back then, even in this Italian-influenced suburb).

Buried in the Herald article, well past the calls for governments to “do something”, was this comment from the lead researcher

But she acknowledged that no link between obesity and access to unhealthy food shops had been clearly established by research.

‘The evidence is quite mixed…You don’t have to wait for the evidence to take action.  It’s the same with the sugar tax –  there’s no definite evidence. It’s hard to get definite evidence in science.  The fact is, unhealthy food is so available, accessible, affordable, we should protect children from potentially harmful products. ‘

At one level one can sympathise.  Definitive evidence is certainly hard to come by in lots of areas (including the ones I’ve been closer to, in macroeconomics).  But it is also a good reason for governments to be particularly wary of optional regulatory interventions, that directly impinge on ordinary citizens’ choices and options.

And that is even if one granted that obesity was somehow the government’s problem.  The common argument is that the public health system makes it so, because the government bears the medical costs of the choices people make.  There is something to that of course –  although we all die of something, and the longer-lived cost more in New Zealand Superannuation, rest-home subsidies etc)   – but as an argument it has chilling implications: we should give the government the right to coercively regulate all manner of behavior, simply because the government bears one lot of the costs if things go wrong?  I support a public health system, but taken very far this argument will eventually risk undermining support for such a system, and that would be unfortunate.

In fact, most of the costs of obesity fall on the individuals concerned, and perhaps their families.  A shortened life expectancy, or more sick days, has a cost to the person concerned.  The benefits from the food consumption, or choice to do things other than exercise, also accrue to the individual.

Do people always make wise choices?  Of course not.  Do children and young people always do so?  Even more so, of course not.  Part of growing up is taking risks, and pushing the boundaries.  But a big part of good parenting is to constrain the choices, and to educate kids in a way that means they are less likely to push the boundaries too far.  It is about the ability to say no. It is about the ability to offer treats, in sensible sizes and sensible frequencies. And to balance that with a good basic balanced diet, with all sorts of foods mostly in moderation. And for adults to model eating sensibly –  both within the family, and within whatever other groups the family might be part of (church, marae, sports club, or whatever).  That is a big part of what culture is –  memorizing, practising and reinforcing a sense of the way we do things, ways that support getting through life reasonably successfully.

Do governments have a role in all this?  I don’t see one (and was unnerved  to read that the Health Minister is apparently proud of the fact that the government has “22 initiatives targeting child obesity”).  Which Ministers  (or their Opposition peers) would I regard as good role models, or qualified to provide guidance on shaping the next generation?  A few perhaps, but not many.   Speaking personally, I’ve never found the presence of dairies, takeaway, or even the layout of supermarket shelves, makes my parenting more difficult.  Perhaps others have a different experience  but –  to loop back to the Auckland University researcher’s acknowledgement –  some robust evidence would be nice before governments rush in, trying to tell people where they can locate their businesses, who they can sell to, and so on.

But my inclinations are more austere Puritan than New Zealand Initiative libertarian, and so although I don’t see a role for government controls in this area, I was quite shocked last night when my elder daughter told me that her intermediate school sells potato chips and a variety of other foods of dubious nutritional value at the morning break.  I’m running for the Board of Trustees –  just to make some points in my campaign statement, rather than expecting the Green voters of South Wellington to prefer someone like me – and if elected would want to encourage the school to look again at quite what products it was offering for sale.

Speaking of the New Zealand Initiative, Geoff Simmons of the Morgan Foundation had an op-ed in this morning’s Dominion-Post attacking the Initiative for its new report The Health of the State and its skeptical take on specific taxes on disapproved classes of food (and alcohol and tobacco).  Simmons leads with the point that the Initiative is “corporate-funded”, as if somehow that matters  It is not as if there is any secret as to where the Initiative gets its money from – its members are listed in the Annual Report, and if anything I was rather disconcerted to learn that the Wellington City Council (always happy to intervene in anything) was a member (and Auckland University in fact).  There are lots of things I disagree with the Initiative on, but the issue should surely be the quality of the argumentation, analysis, and evidence. That goes for the Morgan Foundation surely just as much as for the New Zealand Initiative –  both privately-funded research and advocacy bodies, whose presence lifts the generally weak level of public debate in New Zealand.

Simmons suggests that it is really all about “ideology”.  I don’t think that is right –  there is plenty of debate, or should be, about evidence (partial as it inevitably often is).   But he ends his column this way:

“Instead of a facile debate over whether a sugar tax would work or not, we should be discussing which we value more –  living in a free society where you can eat what you like and burden the state, or whether we value having a healthy productive society”

Surely there is room for both?  A serious ongoing debate about the impact and efficacy of proposed interventions, using insights from overseas experience, from other similar interventions, and so on.  But also a debate about what sort of society we want.  Personally, I like the idea of a free society, in which people can eat whatever they like –  but typically choose to restrain themselves, in food as in all other areas of life.  We don’t exist as servants of the state – if anything, it is the other way round.  Civilisation and prosperity have always required restraint and self-discipline in a whole variety of areas of life.  But the track record of governments in creating such cultures doesn’t look good:  governments more often corrode cultures than foster successful ones.





19 thoughts on “Food, culture, regulation….and a walk with the kids

  1. The NZ Initiative debate plays down externalities and fails to adequately acknowledge that we have (for their taste) a second-best world where the costs of poor food and tobacco consumption choices are borne by taxpayers. In that sense, it is an ideological approach.

    Good luck with the BoT elections. I wonder how your Chicago School views of contracting out of school fairs will go down with voters.


    • Yes, as I said, I’m not expecting to be elected. But the candidate statement is an opportunity to promote a few concerns, and if by some chance they resonate then I’m happy to be involved.

      Nothing against school fairs – just that for most parents, writing a cheque would be more efficient. Actually, contrary to your ‘Chicago school’ impression, I’d actually favour full state funding of state schools (and less luxury IT consumption in schools!)


    • Many of these so-called costs are fiscal externalities which means they do not necessarily imply any inefficiency, and even when there is inefficiency, the nature and magnitude of the fiscal externality is not a reliable guide to the appropriate corrective policy. In short it is not clear that these fiscal externalities are a problem.


      • I note that we do cover externalities, and extensively, in the report. And the Treasury’s Chief Economist singled out our treatment of externalities as being superb and without fault.

        But you can ignore it as being all ideological if you want, AvL.


    • Replying to Crampton below: Thanks for taking my two sentences and implying I am writing off your whole report. Having attended the appallingly moderated debate, I noted that in between the many juvenile interjections from the floor the externalities point was waved away with Jamie Whyte’s “well my mum smoked and it didn’t do me any harm” claim.


  2. We don’t need no stinkin’ evidence! The government must prohibit things I don’t like, now! As an added bonus, I get to feel good about helping the dumb plebes, too.


  3. There really is enough evidence that we do have a problem that has to be addressed in some way. Peter Gluckman has co-authored one such piece;

    I agree that we all have to die of something – but the problem is we are no longer ‘allowing’ folks to die of the consequences of their lifestyle choices. For example, we could offer retirees the choice of access to either national super or national health, but not both. That might alter the behaviour/choices we make earlier on in our lives. But as Dr Toomath has pointed out, we do need to address the environmental factors (sugar added to manufactured foods) that we are in many ways almost unable to avoid;

    Most importantly I think we need to stop denying the voluminous evidence about the problem, the magnitude of the problem and the many, simple regulatory solutions available to fix it for future generations.

    Liked by 1 person

    • As I hinted it in my comment about my daughter’s school, I do think there are issues and it would be quite legitimate for parent reps on the Board to limit what is sold in a school (in much the same way as we limit what comes into our homes and what kids eat there). To me, the question is whether the state has a useful or appropriate role to play – or is it a matter of families, churches, iwi, and “culture” more generally. Very few National or Labour (or prob the other parties’) leading figures would I trust with wanting to shape individual behavior more.

      But it is also a question of what destructive forces might be at work. Personally, I think there are more serious threats (less easily controlled by parents/families) than sugary food. In some cases, I might even reluctantly favour regulation. Is there an inconsistency? Yes, and no. Each of us will differ in what we see as the more serious insidious threats, as well as what govts can – or appropriately should – do about it.

      But there is always the power of the purse. We refuse to patronize Hell Pizza, on account of the values it promotes, and I would never enter a Sky City building/facility for much the same reason.


    • Maybe. But the lead researcher here “acknowledges that no link between obiesity and access to unhealthy food shops has been clearly established by research.” So despite the fact that there is no clear evidence about shops it is imperative to take governmental action? Without evidence any policy is but an expression of preference. Not generally a good basis for using the power of the state to control individual behavior.

      I don’t know why I am taking on this particular point. Like the author I have tremendous problems with this idea on general principle.


  4. Oh dear Lord… a circle with a radius of 800 meters is an area of just over 200 hectares… or about ½ the size of the Auckland CBD, certainly that is the size of a decent farm.

    Its enough to put in 5,000 dwellings or house around 10,000 people (more in Auckland) at an section size of 300 square meters… Think about that… maybe 10,000 people living inside a radius of 800 meters…

    So duh! Of course there are going to be shops and wot not as Michael points out nearby… Because schools are near where people live and shops are also near where people live. So to call for the banning of shops within 800 meters of any school is tantamount to banning all food retailers completely from ever being seen…

    This is nanny statism gone completely bonkers… These idiots should be ashamed of themselves for being so stupid…

    And the idea that there is no evidence but we must do something just in case some evidence does turn up… give me strength… Oh I just saw a unicorn fly by shitting a rainbow…


  5. I’m a bit long in the tooth and so seem to remember back when we didn’t have all these pontificators sucking from public tits telling us all we are naughty et al. I also seem to member there weren’t many fatties around. Did we eat less, hell no, indeed I grew up in bakery. Were the foods any worse or better, not really, did we have less choice, well yes and some wasn’t so clever but we didn’t have many fatties. We also didn’t have a car each,rode our bikes to school for miles in stinking Lower Hutt southerlies,(when southerlies were real stuff). Many played rugby as it was the only approved game at HVHS and some of us tramped and hunted and did milk runs and bread runs and good stuff. Still no fatties of note.

    The logical conclusion must surely be (based on this fabulous piece of research), that if you exercise plenty, eat basic foods, drink grog in moderation then ya won’t get fat. Unlike if you drive every where, over eat all sorts of fancy foods, drink lots of white wine then ya gunna be a fat sod.

    The choice is what ya wrap your laughing gear around and how much couch time you do.


  6. Nothing wrong with fast food. I am 54, 190cm height and weigh 90kg and have as much fast food since i was a kid as it is delicious. I sit on a computer all day and I watch Internet TV all nite and write on blogs on my Samsung tablet. But yes I do have dumbells beside my bed which I do regular exercise with as I watch Internet tv, and I eat my 5 veges as regular as I can. So as long as there is a balance, fast food is perfectly good food. My daughters do exactly the same without the dumbells and they are both perfectly slim.


  7. Hi Michael,

    Would you extend these arguments against the taxing and restrictions on alcohol and tobacco? If not, why not?

    Hugh Morgan


  8. Interesting (and fair) question. In the case of tobacco, I do favour specific taxes on the product. There are material negative externalities for non-smokers in many cases, which are not easily compensated for through market processes. But I think tobacco taxes have gone too high. I don’t think the fiscal externalities (see Paul Walker’s comment above) are that good a basis for policy, but at present tobacco taxes raise more than the health costs smoking gives rise to (with no allowance for eg, NZS savings).

    In the case of alcohol, I’m honestly not sure. I was brought up teetotal, and my father was heavily involved in the temperance movements, and one doesn’t easily slew off that upbringing (I do drink, but very moderately). Externalities are more about behaviours associated with alcohol than with consumption itself (different from smoking) which suggests focusing more on penalizing disorderly (or worse) behavior heavily, rather than heavily taxing the product.


  9. London has elected an immigrant’s son as its new mayor. You must surely be upset with that but you and your comrades have a lot to learn from that experience. Diversity is essential for success, no matter what.


    • I’m not sure why you’d think I’d be upset about that, or who you think my “comrades” are. Electing a representative of Jeremy Corban’s Labour Party seems pretty foolhardy but that is the voters’ choice.

      Last I checked, both John Key and Andrew Little are the sons of immmigrants. I’m not sure I’d want either as PM, but on policy grounds not parentage.


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