Shocking obesity rate among Kiwi kids

Last updated 09:47 08/01/2014

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New Zealand's lack of commitment to childhood obesity prevention programmes and policies is failing a generation of children, an obesity expert says.

Figures released by the Ministry of Health show that 10,000 more New Zealand children were classified as overweight or obese last year compared to 2012.

"Our rising rate of overweight and obesity to almost one in three children is shocking compared to Australia's rate where it appears to have plateaued out at about one in four," Auckland University's Professor of Population Nutrition and Global Health Boyd Swinburn says.

"Pulling the plug on funding for the Healthy Eating Healthy Action programmes and allowing the junk food industry free rein over our young Kiwis is unfortunately creating a sad legacy of increasing diabetes and chronic diseases."

The Health Committee report on improving child health outcomes and the Government's assessment of the Healthy Together Victoria programme in Australia for its potential adaptation for New Zealand are welcome signals that things might change, Professor Swinburn says.

But the continued upward trend compared unfavourably with many OECD countries, including even the United States, where overweight and obesity among children is either flattening or decreasing.

"This government has progressively disinvested in obesity prevention, especially in programmes promoting healthy food choices, and key policies recommended by the World Health Organisation, such as restricting unhealthy food marketing to children and having healthy food policies in schools, remain unimplemented."

New Zealand's weight problem has now overtaken smoking as the biggest contributor to the disease burden.

In 2006, overweight and obesity cost the health system $624 million and a further $100m to $200m in lost productivity. But the investment in prevention is tiny, he says.

"From the official information figures we obtained for 2012, the health system spends about $29m on population nutrition promotion. This is less than one twentieth of what the health system pays for the consequences of overweight and obesity.

"I am sure people would think it is crazy to invest only $1 in prevention for every $20 we spend on treating the consequences of obesity."

New Zealand signed up in May to WHO's Global Plan for Action to reduce non-communicable diseases like diabetes and heart disease. It includes a set of highly cost-effective interventions for governments to implement.

High on the list are taxes on sugar-sweetened beverages and junk food, and front-of-pack labelling.

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"New Zealand needs to get back into the forefront of public health to stop this rise in childhood obesity," Professor Swinburn says.

"The evidence is compelling, the strategies are agreed, the public is highly supportive, and children and their parents are clearly losing the battle of the bulge.

"Government leadership and commitment to support them is long overdue."

- © Fairfax NZ News

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