NZ Woman's death begs debate about government health intervention

A WOMAN dies, gasping for breath, sitting on her toilet as her heart finally gives out. She has been drinking about 10 litres of coke every day. That's more than twice the safe daily limit of caffeine, and almost a kilogram of sugar daily.

She drank so much of the stuff her teeth had rotted away, and at least one of her children was also born with no enamel on their teeth, her family say. The New Zealand coroner found she would not have died if it weren't for her dependence on Coke.

At the same time as his ruling emerges, on the other side of the world in Europe, prestigious medical journal The Lancet releases a report on "non-communicable", or lifestyle, diseases.

Two Australian academics argue the alcohol and processed food industries are displaying the same behaviour as Big Tobacco, increasing their profits and market share at the cost of human lives.

The stats are pretty scary. While Natasha Harris died in a tragic and humiliating manner, in the very same year another 18 million people died from complications relating to high blood pressure and blood sugar, cholesterol and obesity.

"Much of [this] could be attributed to the consumption of ultra-processed foods and drinks," Rob Moodie and Bruce Neal wrote in The Lancet.

They believe self-regulation is failing, and show how the alcohol and processed food industries are behaving in much the same way as Big Tobacco, lobbying governments and disputing scientific evidence to protect their ever-expanding products and market share.

The coroner and Natasha's husband both believe warning labels should be put on Coke. Her family has said they did not believe her Coke consumption could be dangerous, because there are no warnings on the product.

When I told one of my libertarian friends I was writing about Professors Moodie and Neal's report, he was pissed off.

"I'm just imagining it...," he wrote. "Science says govt should take over all our food and drink choices!"

"Mandates and rations all round! It's science! A study said it so it must be so!"

Now, despite the slightly worrying inference that science is not to be trusted, he raises a serious point.

How much regulation of companies is OK, and how much of our unhealthy lifestyles should be left up to us?

Anyone who has tried to navigate a supermarket aisle while on a diet knows how difficult it can be to even fully understand what you are putting in your body.

And as multinational food producers grow, they bump out local, fresh food providers and replace them with their own, ultra-processed, cheaper products. Already, the top ten food companies produce 50 per cent of what Americans eat. And internationally the top ten companies produce 15 per cent of the whole world's food, The Lancet reports.

There is clearly a balance to be struck between our health, the quality and length of our lives, and the ability of legitimate companies to act freely, innovate and make profits and jobs (although I don't buy the argument it's a straight government intervention vs individual choice issue - often regulation gives people more choice, when it forces industry to give them more info about what is actually in their food).

Where you fall in this debate cuts down into some pretty deep political beliefs.

And it doesn't just stop at regulation of industry. As I've written about here, we are now learning more about the ways in which early life poverty could change our most fundamental genetic characteristics, a process known as epigenetics.

The question is, are we willing to make the political choices that might to turn out to be the most effective in dealing with this.

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