Editorial: No easy solution to obesity problem

Obesity is growing in New Zealand and elsewhere but experts and industry bodies struggle with solutions.
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Obesity is growing in New Zealand and elsewhere but experts and industry bodies struggle with solutions.

OPINION: Few issues get people disagreeing quite as quickly as the one about obesity. Whose fault is it and what should be done? Is it simply a matter of self-control or must the state intervene and add tax to sugary drinks and unhealthy foods? It exposes deep ideological divides.  

New Zealand has been the third most obese country in the OECD since 2007. The OECD's latest obesity update revealed that the poor are getting poorer and the fat are getting fatter, as the report emphasises the role played by inequality. 

First, the figures are staggering. The United States remains the most obese country, with 31 per cent of 15 year olds affected and 38.2 per cent overall. Mexico is in second place at 32.4 per cent and New Zealand is at 30.7 per cent. 

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In the US, an astonishing 47 per cent of the population is expected to be obese by the year 2030. 

Experts predict that a global diabetes epidemic would bankrupt health systems. Already, a figure of $600 million added to New Zealand's health costs by obesity every year is thought to be on the modest side. 

There are class and gender imbalances involved, as the OECD pointed out. Women have tended to be more obese than men, although male obesity has been growing faster. The less educated are more likely to be affected than the well-educated, although rates among highly educated people in the US are also growing rapidly. 

There is a reciprocal relationship between obesity and job prospects which reinforce social inequalities, the report says. In general, the obese work less and earn less.  

So, what happens now? Media coverage of the report risked becoming a familiar battle between an industry that wants little regulation applied by government and health experts who insist a tax is the best answer. But the OECD report actually emphasised a lighter touch.

Better communication policies were stressed. Some of these strategies are familiar and while the OECD cited New Zealand's "5 + A Day" campaign as one of them, "nearly every country promotes fruit and vegetable consumption", including the US and Mexico. 

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It also stressed better food labelling and argued for broader use of social media to raise awareness. More controversially, the OECD also argued for greater regulation of unhealthy food and drink advertising aimed at children, and saw "positive effects" following regulation in some territories. 

This has been a fraught area in New Zealand. A study by Otago and Auckland universities found that children see an average of 27 fast food and drink ads a day, excluding what they see on television. Then "if they watch TV for an hour before dinner, they see 10 junk food ads," according to an Otago University associate professor. 

The study linked advertising and childhood obesity. But the Food and Grocery Council called it outdated and too broad, as it counted food wrappers as ads. Another industry body, the Beverage Council, emphasised self-regulation as a clear contrast to the OECD's view that "voluntary pledges, rather than regulation by law, may not be effective".

Who should set the rules and how will continue to be an area of disagreement.

 - The Press

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