If you look at recent news on sugary drinks and obesity in New Zealand, chances are you will come across the name Dr Gerhard Sundborn, or the advocacy Dr Sundborn undertakes at FIZZ (Fighting Sugar In Soft Drinks). Health Promotion Forum caught up with Dr Sundborn to find out more about his role and recent work.
Gerhard, thank you for your time. Could you tell our readers a little about your role and background please?
I have a few varied roles. I am a public health researcher/epidemiologist based at the University of Auckland. In 2013, I with a number of colleagues established FIZZ (which stands for Fighting Sugar in Soft-drinks) a Public Health Advocacy Group to address sugary drink consumption. More recently (since February) I have also started a part-time role for ARPHS as a Project and Public Health Analyst.
I have spent most of my time in Auckland and as a child and teenager lived in Wellington for 2 years and Rotorua for 3 years. My father is originally from Huntly and my Mother is from Vava’u, Tonga. Together with my wife Meliame we have three young children Sola 8y, Wayne 6y and Chloe 5y.
We are aware that you have a symposium coming up. What is it about and why is it important?
The symposium ‘Taxing Sugary Drinks’ on the 26th June in Auckland is the fourth that FIZZ has run. It will provide information and explain the science as to why sugar and sugary drinks are harmful, profile a large number of initiatives that have been created to address this issue both here in NZ and the USA, and finally we will also focus on the issue of taxing sugary drinks- looking at the most recent examples in Berkley (USA) and determine whether this is or should be an election issue leading up to our vote on 23rd September. To conclude the symposium we will have a political panel debate with representatives from all the major political parties with the only exception being National (Greens, Labour, The Māori Party, NZ First and The Opportunities Party will all be represented).
What are you hoping to achieve from the symposium?
We hope that the symposium will further raise awareness about the need to look seriously at reducing sugar and sugary drink intake to improve health.
We also hope that by providing a forum to profile the great work that many people and organisations are already doing in this area, it will encourage others to do the same and/or similar things.
We hope that this symposium will also promote wider public debate on a sugary drink tax being a key election issue.
How has society/ NZ/ communities responded to this issue and how has this changed over the years?
Since we started (back in 2013) the issue of sugar and sugary drinks is now becoming part of normal commentary when we think of the health debate. Our health sector and researchers in academic organisations I think have embraced this issue and driven a lot of great work. The general public too I think now see the need to address sugar and sugary drinks as a high priority. This increase in public awareness/support can be seen in the huge increase in support of a sugary drink tax that went from 44% in early 2014 to 86% in late 2016.
How does health promotion work alongside other approaches to improve wellbeing in this area?
Health promotion is an essential part of the work needed to address the problem of high sugar intake in NZ. It is important to work with schools, churches, sports clubs and all parts of our community to provide them with accurate and easily understood information about sugar in our diets and the massive amount of sugar in many drinks, the harm it causes but most importantly – possible solutions. There is some amazing health promotion work that is going on in this area where many large Māori and Pasifika festivals have gone sugary-drink free or water only such as Creekfest in Cannons Creek Porirua, Te Wānanga o Raukawa Events in Ōtaki and the Matatini event that was held in Hawkes Bay this year.
What are some of the challenges and opportunities to achieving your goals on this issue?
Industry present challenges to this work for obvious reasons in that they make money from the sale of sugar, however, we hope that industry will move to creating more low/no sugar products, and there are examples of this happening already.
Other challenges come from an argument that we shouldn’t limit people’s choice! However, we don’t want to limit choice but move the landscape so that healthier choices in the form of very low and no sugar products are the easier choice to make.