We're the biggest losers

05:08, May 25 2014
Fat woman, overweight, obese
BIG PROBLEM: New Zealanders are getting fatter at an alarming rate.

We're eating ourselves to death. Remember how we used to visit America and laugh at how many fat people there were? Who's laughing now?

Rachel Smalley was right. Many New Zealand women are lardos and heifers. But even more so the men. And, sadly, their kids too.

A new health study has found 1.2 million Kiwis are not just a little bit pudgy around the middle, but obese. That's nearly one in three adults and one in nine children. And that's the overall average. In poorer areas of the country, it's closer to 50 per cent.

How has this happened? How has New Zealand become the fattest nation in the OECD after America and Mexico? Aren't we supposed to be a fit, outdoorsy nation living on fresh air and natural produce?

Health experts have been warning us for ages, but we haven't taken any notice. Back when National took office in 2008, it was out with Nanny State and those pesky, dictatorial healthy eating programmes.

Labour was pilloried for banning pies and soft drinks and cream buns and sweets from school tuck shops. It wasn't the state's job to reach into the lunchboxes of our kids, we cried.


National wasn't a fan of funding obesity programmes or education either. It felt the money spent on curbing our interest in unhealthy eating wasn't actually a health priority. So Health Minister Tony Ryall cut funding for the Obesity Action Coalition. It closed on March 1, 2010.

But that wasn't all. National scrapped the roles of district health board staff who helped schools implement healthy food and drink guidelines for schools implemented by Labour. More nanny stateism and bureaucratic red tape, it said. Better to channel the money into school sport - there's not much a run around the footy field can't fix.

What else could go? Fruit in Schools. It only cost $4 million, but surely kids will naturally choose to buy fruit rather than a pie. And that meant the DHB staff who helped oversee that programme weren't needed either. Another saving.

Just to show National wasn't kidding, it also cut funding for the Ministry of Health-administered Healthy Eating Healthy Action programme and, last year, removed the mandate that local councils implement plans to ensure their communities' health and wellbeing.

So how's that all working out for us? According to health professionals, it's been an unmitigated disaster. Professor Boyd Swinburn, Professor of Population Nutrition and Global Health, University of Auckland, condemns this Government's "concerted inaction" on obesity and warns we're getting fatter at an alarming rate.

An intensive care specialist at Middlemore Hospital, David Galler, says the Government is, in essence, asleep at the wheel - and that far from saving the country money by cutting funding for obesity, it's cost us a fortune.

How much, exactly? About $700 million a year is spent on heart disease and diabetes. And while rates have been going up since the 1980s, most health experts agree things have got a lot worse in the past six years.

I don't put all the blame for this at National's door. There has to be some personal responsibility for our lifestyle and eating choices. But we sure don't make it easy on ourselves when fruit, vegetables, and decent whole foods cost a small fortune at the supermarket while the fast-food chains advertise "meals" for a couple of dollars.

At a prestigious girls' school near where I work, the kids' morning ritual involves trips to the convenience store for pies, hot chips, and chocolate. At 8.30am.

And they are the privileged ones. If their parents are too time-poor to make lunch, or don't care what their children eat, then what's going to happen? We're going to produce our fattest, unhealthiest generation yet.

The Government has a big role in making sure that doesn't happen - for the sake of the economy, as much as anything else.

And to be fair to it, there are signs that it has realised what a whopping mistake it made six years ago.

Last week's Budget earmarked $10 million a year of new funding for Healthy Families, a new initiative based on a Victorian programme that encourages families to make healthy food choices and be active.

It's a positive step. But on its own it's simply not going to cut the mustard. A radical revamp of health and education systems around obesity are required to turn this bloated supertanker of a crisis around.

That means a concentrated effort to get into poorer communities - and Maori and Pacific Island communities in particular - with both healthy eating messaging and alternatives. Advertising campaigns and pamphlets won't do it, either. It needs to be a grass-roots, labour-intensive campaign. That'll cost a lot of money - but not as much money as doing nothing.

Then there's regulation. I've never been a fan of banning things. But there's no escaping the fact that taxing things works. Because it hurts. There's a reason almost no-one smokes any more - it's too damned expensive.

The same accusations of government interference and nanny stateism were flung at those who steered through the various pieces of anti-smoking legislation in decades past. These days, most of us wonder what all the fuss was about.

Obesity is the new smoking. You can't ban sugar and fat. But you can make it more expensive and - for children at least - more difficult to obtain.

Sunday Star Times