Here’s how it started. I’m on my way home from work, listening as I usually do, to Radio New Zealand National, when I’m confronted by news that although childhood obesity is predicted to surpass smoking as the foremost risk to health next year, the government yet again, is rejecting demands for a 20% tax on fizzy drinks. The item went onto quote from a 2009 OECD report, that ranked us the third fattest among that group of industrialised nations, and the 2012/13 New Zealand Health Survey, which revealed one in three New Zealand adults were obese. How depressing. If I hadn’t been behind the wheel some serious slouching – think young Alvy Singer, worrying about the universe expanding, in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall – would have been in order. Instead I made do with recasting and re-imagining one of my favourite scenes. It went something like this.
“Why are you depressed Kim?” Prime Minister Key asks.
“It’s something she heard on the radio” replies Health Minister Coleman.
“New Zealand’s tamariki (children) are expanding”, says Kim.
“New Zealand’s tamariki are expanding?” queries the Prime Minister.
“Well, in terms of importance, our tamariki are everything, and if they are expanding someday they will get sick and then everybody’s future will be pretty bleak”, warns Kim.
“What is that your business!”, says the visibly exasperated Health Minister who, turns to the Prime Minister, adding, “she’s even read the WHO Interim Report of the Commission on Ending Childhood Obesity!
“Because, Minister Coleman”, answers Kim, “your unequivocal claim that further regulation is not required, seems somewhat disingenuous. Both, the NZ Beverage Guidance Panel Policy Brief: Options to Reduce Sugar Sweetened Beverage (SSB) Consumption in NZ, June 2014 and Benchmarking Food Environments: Experts Assessments of Policy Gaps and Priorities for the New Zealand Government, July 2014, considered the introduction of an excise tax of at least 20% on sugar-sweetened beverages a priority and urged for immediate government action. A year on and you are still dragging your feet. This, despite Sir Peter Gluckman, the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor, and, co-chair of the WHO Commission on Ending Childhood Obesity, noting that, attention on any one factor, or exclusively on the health sector, is unlikely to be effective[i], and consensus support, in the WHO Interim Report, for the application of fiscal measures to change food purchase behaviours.”
The Prime Minister interjects, “But Kim, taxes are problematic politically. We mustn’t forget the New Zealand Food & Beverage Industry is part of the governments Business Growth Agenda. Basically the decision comes down to a trade-off between human expansion and market expansion. That’s why we need to ignore this while we’re here.”
Forget slouching, I needed a lie down after that imaginary conversation. What’s to be done? Apropos of the tax impasse, and in the spirit of every little bit counts, perhaps a novel – pun intended – intervention to make an environment less obesogenic might fly. As I work in a hospital it seems a reasonable place, wherein to start dreaming. Clearly, while we have our fair share of vending machines, whose products, will, without doubt, weigh you down, we lack a viable alternative, which instead, might lighten, and liven us up. It occurred to me, there was a literary analogue to the snack vending machine – I’d come across it on-line a couple of years ago – a book vending machine, created for the Monkey’s Paw, a Toronto bookshop. The brain child of animator Craig Small, the coin operated Biblio-Mat, discharges randomly chosen old books.
Perfect. As well as the obvious health benefits of a zero sugar, zero fat, vending machine, a Biblio-Mat would sate the appetites of staff, patients and visitors to Christchurch Hospital, who have been bereft of books since the 2011 earthquake, when the University of Canterbury bookshop’s satellite store, a small literary oasis, amid the bustle that is hospital life, closed indefinitely. Though, another conventional bookshop seems unlikely, perhaps there is room for a smaller scale, book dispensary. Call it folly if you will, but I am quietly confident. After all, Cantabrians young and old, have embraced the rather wonderful Gap Filler initiative, Dance-O-Mat, a coin operated former laundromat washing machine, powering four speakers, encircling a custom-built dance floor.
It seems to me, common to both ‘Mat’s’ – besides quirkiness and coin operation – is possibility. The Dance-O-Mat provides a place of possibility, the Biblio-Mat, books of possibility, and resultant action – dancing or reading – the vehicle to; lift spirits, invigorate body and mind, distract and delight. And even though I do not possess an entrepreneurial bone in my body, today, strangely enough, I’ve been reading all about licensed production.
[i] Gkuckman, P., Nishtar, S., & Armstrong, T. (2015). Ending childhood obesity: a multidimensional challenge. The Lancet, Vol., 385, pp. 1048-1050.