Election 2020: Judith Collins blaming obesity on 'personal responsibility' is 'shallow, lazy and wrong', experts say
Blaming people for their own obesity is “shallow, lazy and wrong,” says one health expert after Judith Collins commented that overweight people need to “take some personal responsibility”.
The National party leader said her attitude to the obesity problem was “not catchy", adding: “Do not blame systems for personal choices.”
The party leader also encouraged people to own up to their “little weaknesses” while on the campaign trail on Tuesday.
But health and nutrition experts disagreed with the politicians’ comments say obesity is a serious health issue that affects a significant portion of New Zealanders – both adults and children alike.
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Personal responsibility does play a role to some extent, but so do genetics and the environment, they say. One said that children today are growing up in swamps full of junk food.
“The victim blaming approach is shallow, lazy and wrong,” said Professor Boyd Swinburn, a professor of population nutrition and global health at the University of Auckland.
He said the obesity epidemic – which was officially declared by the World Health Organisation (WHO) in 1997 – is a global issue, and the idea that it’s solely an issue of personal responsibility doesn’t make sense.
“This has not been caused by a global collapse of personal willpower or everybody choosing to be fat, that’s the wrong diagnosis completely,” said Swinburn, who established the WHO’s first Collaborating Centre for Obesity Prevention at Deakin University in Melbourne.
“It’s been caused by an explosion of junk food and processed food ... creating the kind of environment that will lead to obesity.”
The New Zealand Healthy Survey of 2018 and 2019 found around one in three adults and one in nine children are obese. A 2017 update from the OECD ranked New Zealand fourth behind the United States, Chile and Mexico for countries with the highest obesity rates in adults.
The University of Otago’s Professor Rachael Taylor also didn’t think it helpful to label obesity as simply an issue of willpower or personal responsibility.
”How does that really explain the massive increase in prevalence that we’ve seen in the last few decades?” she asked.
Taylor, the director of Edgar Diabetes and Obesity Research Centre at the university, said overeating and under-exercising has become increasingly common in today’s society.
“Those sorts of behaviours really are the endemic behaviours. The food that is cheap, easy to eat, accessible to everyone is not the food, necessarily, that we should be ... eating to benefit our health.
”At the end of the day there’s always a balance between the genetics and the environment,” Taylor said.
There has been no significant change – positive or negative – in the child obesity rate since 2011/12 and in the adult rate since 2012/13. However, research stemming from the Before School Checks shows obesity rates in pre-school aged children declined between 2010/11 and 2015/16.
“The actual rate of overweight and obesity, and indeed even extreme obesity, [in young children] is declining ... across the board,” Taylor explained. ”In our preschoolers, somehow ... [the country is] making a difference.”
Both experts said in order for there to be significant, positive change, leadership was needed.
“Obesity [has] been growing in New Zealand for at least 30, probably 40 years. It’s been on the front pages for 20 years, and we’ve had no substantial government response to it,” Swinburn said.
“We certainly haven’t seen the types of policies that WHO recommends which are those policies around creating healthy environment.” Swinburn has personally contributed to over 30 WHO consultations and reports on the topic.
Taylor wants to see real action from government – perhaps in the form of a sugar tax – to make New Zealand a healthier place to live. Simply putting the blame and responsibility on individuals doesn’t work.
“Personal responsibility is what we’ve been telling people for years. We have to do more. The evidence is getting stronger and stronger that a sugar tax really can have some effect.”
Asked about a sugar tax at The Press Leaders Debate earlier this month, both Collins and Labour opponent Jacinda Ardern said it was off the cards. Collins said education was better, and Ardern said her party would roll out healthy lunches to 200,000 students across the country.
“People talk about [a sugar tax] on sugary drinks, it is in cereal, it is in tomato source, it is in almost every item that our children are reaching for,” Ardern said.
Both leaders spoke to a potential tax on the basis of dental care, rather than obesity, and the greater health implications sugar-filled products can have.
Swinburn said a number of academic reports and recommendations have been made over the years, many of which have been ignored or pushed aside.
Changes at a government level could include also restricting junk food marketing, allowing only healthy food in schools and early childhood education centres, and having mandatory front of pack labelling.
“We have allowed the food industry to create food environments for us which are just filled with the types of food [that are] full of cheap ingredients ... and they make us fat.
“It’s not an unexpected outcome when you create a food environment that’s full of junk food that people are gonna get fat.”