It comes after world-first research set inside a lifelike “virtual supermarket” with real food brands showed that higher prices would discourage people from buying junk food.
But it wasn’t enough to just tax fatty foods or salty foods, because then people would just buy sugary foods as a substitute.
Instead, the New Zealand-led research says the tax needs to apply to a range of junk foods – combined with subsidies of fruit and vegetables.
So 1kg of apples, selling this week for $6.30 at CITC, would be discounted 20 per cent to $5.
The Cook Islands was one of the first countries in the world to introduce a sugar tax on fizzy drinks as a health initiative to help reduce diabetes. The higher the sugar content, the higher the tax: a big 2.25L bottle of Coca-Cola is already $7.20 with tax.
But the scientists argue that all junk food should be taxed.
That means a packet of chocolate mint biscuits would go from $3.80 to as much as $4.50, and sugary Fruit Loops breakfast cereal would rise from $10.20 to $10.80.
For the best results, the scientists say, food taxes and subsidies would need to go hand in hand with monitoring and food industry regulation around product reformulation, marketing and nutrition labelling.
It comes as the Cook Islands Ministry of Health moves an ever more intense focus onto educating people about healthy living and especially, healthy eating.
Top surgeon John Dunn, who conducted 11 stomach reduction surgeries in Rarotonga in July, told Cook Islands News afterwards that it wasn’t good enough to rely on surgery: people need to change their diets to save themselves from premature death.
Professor Cliona Ni Mhurchu, from the University of Auckland, is one of the authors of the new study in The Lancet.
“We know that public health campaigns targeting individuals – for example educating people about healthy eating – aren’t enough to curb the obesity epidemic,” she said.
“There is mounting evidence that one of the best ways to do this is by making healthy foods more affordable, and unhealthy foods less affordable.”
Mexico and Hungary have introduced junk food taxes, and other jurisdictions including France, the UK, Ireland, and various US cities have adopted soft drink taxes. After the Mexican sweetened beverage tax was introduced, purchases of taxed drinks fell by 5.5 percent in 2014 and 9.7 percent in 2015.
In Rarotonga yesterday, views were mixed. Sitting outside at a cafe, local entrepreneur Rohan Ellis said consumer choice was paramount. “Whether people choose to drink sugar or eat fat is their prerogative.
“However, if you have a country that has limited education, sometimes big brother needs to step in to regulate what people eat or drink.”
“Cook Islands are one of the most obese countries in the world, it is quite chronic, and I think government ned to step in and do something about it.”
He did not believe government should just tax fizzy drinks: they should be consistent and tax all sugary foods.
His wife Adriane is pre-diabetic. “Sugar is not good in the long run,” she said. “It’s already affecting me.”
But on balance, she said, she didn’t favour a junk food tax.
And their friend, Mama Tuaputa, ridiculed the idea. “I love sugar – but to balance it, I love salt as well! I don’t want a tax – that’s bull.”