Editorial: Sugary drinks ban a welcome stand

Hospitals have not always been known as the healthiest of places.

Packing people into wards in which sleep is difficult amid stale air and a morbid atmosphere is not necessarily conducive to wellness, whatever the logistical appeal. Though hand sanitisers are scattered about strategically and cleanliness encouraged, hospitals are places where sick people gather. For those with lowered immunity, the risk of contracting viral or bacterial diseases such as the antibiotic resistant superbugs MRSA and ESBL is real.

Through last century and into this one, perhaps in a misguided response to the unhealthy on-the-job stress, staff could be seen clustered around outside, smoking tobacco. Hospital meals have at times been criticised as unlikely to enhance health.

However, hospitals are run and staffed by people with a natural inclination to serve others, encourage healthful practices and relinquish bad habits.

In recent times they have been focusing increasingly on preventive health - ambiguous in name but not intent, which is to enhance individual health by encouraging good life choices: exercise, diet, stress mitigation, moderation in drinking, adequate sleep.

Exactly 10 years ago, Nelson Hospital went smokefree, apart from a ventilated smoking room in the mental health unit. Now, another good example-setting breakthrough has been announced.

From the end of next month the sale of all drinks artificially sweetened with sugar will be banned from Nelson and Wairau hospitals.

The Nelson Marlborough District Health Board move is believed to be a national first. It comes at a time when the role of sugar in obesity is earning close attention, with a new doctor-based lobby group gaining plenty of traction.

The board's principal dental officer Dr Rob Beaglehole has also led the charge on the issue, describing sugar as "the new tobacco".

He narrowly failed to convince the Nelson City Council to take a similar stand last year, but the issue may be brought back to the new council.

The board's stand sends a strong message that diet is important, sugar consumption harmful when excessive - as is frequently the case - and healthier options should be considered.

Some will question the board's decision to play "food police" when the Government is not prepared to take such a strong stance on obesity. They will say such bans take away individual choice and responsibility, stigmatise overweight people, intrude unnecessarily into political correctness and are mere tokenism.

However, something has to be done about New Zealand's appalling rate of obesity, just as action had to be taken for the collective good against smoking. With over-consumption of sugar emerging rapidly as a significant factor in the Western diet - and bulging health budgets - the board's stance is appropriate and welcome.