Food taboo our deadliest killer

Food taboo our deadliest killer

Workers tackle mounds of junk - much of it left over from junk
food that causes 72% of all deaths in the Cook Islands.

photo | LGNZ


higher taxes for alcohol and tobacco
have not been matched with higher
taxes for junk food 


Jason Brown

Cook Islanders have once again topped world statistics - for obesity.

Over two thirds - 68.7% - of all men in the Cook Islands are rated as "living with obesity."

And dying with it, too.

So-called "non-communicable diseases" or NCDs remain involved in the majority of causes of death.

Everyone dies eventually.


For all too many Cook Islanders, however, the causes are anything but 'natural'.

Yet the country continues to import millions each year in highly sugary drinks and foods.

A trade page shows that in 2014 the country imported 690 different consumer products from 41 different countries. 

By comparison, just 13 products were exported, to 22 different trading partners.

Part of the problem is that Cook Islands import companies claim they play no role in food choices.

That they're only responding to public demand.

ADS 24/7

Yet public demand is shaped by endless and largely unregulated advertising.

Shops and buildings all over the country are festooned with big signs for foreign junk drinks and food.

Newspapers and magazines carry ads for the same big names.

Meanwhile, locally produced jingles on radio and full multimedia ads on television reinforce messaging with studio audio and dizzying visuals.

Online ads round out an almost 24/7 tsunami of advertisements pushed on Cook Islanders daily.

Advertising works, obviously, or no one would advertise.

World's biggest - Coca Cola is the world's largest polluter when it comes to rubbish, with "soft" fizzy drinks having a hard impact on national health statistics. 

Photo | Avaaz petition


But working towards .. what?

Profits for private companies that benefit a tiny, rich few.

Huge losses for taxpayers.

Costs from obesity - health problems, opportunity loss, intergenerational impacts - reach into the millions.

That includes funding the cost of awareness campaigns that, by one measure, appear to have almost zero impact.


Google trends results show that there is so little interest in obesity that results do not show up at all from the Cook Islands.

This result includes those under a trends setting for "small volume" states, with the Cook Islands not showing up among 166 other countries.

By comparison, Samoa is the world leader in searches for "obesity", at 100% search interest.  American Samoa comes second at 83% interest.

Tonga and Northern Mariana Islands were 3rd and 4th most interested in researching obesity. 

All small volume search countries, arguably showing far greater interest. Fiji at 7th and Solomon Islands at 10th most interested?

Show six of the top ten most interested countries in the world are from our own region.

But not the Cook Islands. 


Web statistics are difficult to prove scientifically, might be one criticism. 

Huge gaps in awareness from 100% to less than zero still tells a story nonetheless.

One that indicates debating food choices is all but taboo in the Cook Islands.

Such a sensitive topic that people don't even want to look at results for gluttony, one of seven deadly sins. 

Refreshing but deadly - sugary drinks are hugely popular among children. Often pictured by media with sponsorship material, such as in this picture promoting a soccer tourney.

photo | cook islands news 

Part of the problem is that factors behind obesity are not 'only in the Cook Islands'.

Worldwide the food business is worth trillions, with food imports to our little corner topping $100 million. 

Food businesses are the same as other businesses.

They like to protect their profits and investments.

That often means lobbying for open, free trade laws, weak health standards, and lax law enforcement.

In the Cook Islands, one form of that kind of influence was exposed in the Colagate scandal. 


Claims of millions in unpaid taxes from the country's largest company highlighted the fact that private companies profit from free trade.

But seek to avoid and sometimes evade their fair share of the costs.

At the time of #Colagate in 2013, former MP Norman George estimated there might be some $18 million in unpaid taxes, via alleged invoice splitting. 

Attention spread from the Cook Islands to New Zealand, where Investigate magazine ran a front cover story :

Multimillion rort? Nearly ten years later, still no inquiry
into huge tax losses by some of the country's
biggest companies. 


An inquiry was put off for months that year, then delayed until the next year. 

By May 2014, a snap election was called, and government changed. 

Colagate appeared to disappear from the headlines and public debate.

No inquiry was ever held.

No case against CITC or anyone else appears in legal case archives, such as PACLII, the Pacific Legal Information Institute. 

However a recent release from MFEM indicates that tax collection remains a problem.


A report file created in April 2020, modified in May, and released in July that year, produced a compliance report to improve enforcement in the wake of the global pandemic.

"While we invest a great deal of our time building services to promote voluntary compliance, we are also cracking down hard on tax evasion with international cooperation through the Automatic Exchange of Information now in place," wrote Revenue Management Director Xavier Mitchell. 

"It is important, especially at this time, that those not paying their fair share do so and contribute to the rebuilding of our economy which has been devastated by the pandemic."

However it is difficult to tell where the cracks really are.

Another PACLII search shows only nine tax cases on the legal record since 2001 - the last being five years ago, in 2017. 


Part of the problem is that large companies have ready access to large bank accounts to fund legal defences against government prosecutions.

When those companies are linked with offshore finance interests, they can seem untouchable. 

What is clear is from a 2019 Te Marae Ora report - how many deaths come from the often untaxed profits of junk food :


"NCDs represent 79% of all deaths 
in the Cook Islands."


   Quoting Health Information Bulletin stats from 2015, a ministry outcome includes plans to "Strengthen food safety and food standards."

However withdrawal of approval for food products is rare.

No mention is made of targeting importers. 

Instead, there are vague assurances around "encouraging" Cook Islanders to build food "security" by planting more at home.

Government has started to tax sugary drinks more heavily - but not heavily enough.

"Although taxation measures on tobacco, alcohol, and sugar sweetened beverages have progressed, these fall short of global recommendations" 

^ reads Ngaki’anga Kapiti Ora’anga Meitaki; The Cook Islands Strategic Action plan to prevent and control Non-communicable diseases 2021-2022

A health ministry billboard hammers home the ugly side of junk food - diabetes related health problems. 

photo | radio new zealand / walter zweiffel 


There were massive increases imposed during the 2000s on alcohol and tobacco.

So far, taxes on food and drink killing more people than both booze and smokes?

Still much lower. 

One bit of good news, though?

Latest statistics from the most recent bulletin from 2020 show that the percentage of NCD deaths has shrunk from 79% ,to 72% of all recorded deaths.

Even better - compared to 2010 stats showing NCD death rates at 81% according to the Guardian, quoting Cook Islands News. 

Perhaps some people are listening.

Just nowhere near enough.

. . .


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