05:19pm Tuesday 22 October 2019

Priority actions identified to tackle child obesity

Stefanie Vandevijere

Dr Stefanie Vandevijere

A paper published in the latest World Health Organisation (WHO) Bulletin this month, shows there is broad support among the public health community in New Zealand for implementing priority actions put forward by public health experts.

The Healthy Food Environment Policy Index or Food-EPI recommended these priority actions for the Government to tackle child obesity and this was supported by more than 60 leading health experts, both researchers and practitioners ,in New Zealand.

The three priority policy actions to protect children from obesity and ensure their rights to a healthy and bright future are;

  • reducing the promotion of unhealthy foods to children by restricting the marketing of unhealthy foods to children and adolescents through broadcast and non-broadcast media and ensuring schools and early childhood education and care services are free of commercial promotion of unhealthy foods
  • ensuring that foods provided in or sold by schools and early childhood education and care services meet dietary guidelines
  • introducing a 20 percent excise tax on sugar-sweetened beverages and exploring how the tax revenue could be applied to promote healthy diets among kids

The Food EPI Expert Panel highlighted that those key healthy food policies to promote child health and reduce child obesity were lacking in New Zealand. 

The Panel of more than 60 New Zealand public health professionals, medical practitioners and NGO leaders reviewed all the evidence on recent government actions and rated the degree of implementation compared to international benchmarks.

The panel participants also identified the top priority recommendations for government to fill these implementation gaps.

The unique report card presentation was the first systematic study on national food policies in the world and it showed that, while there were some strengths, there were a large number of healthy food policies that still need to be implemented in New Zealand.

 “The healthy food policies needing to be implemented were especially apparent in the areas of reducing the marketing of unhealthy foods to children, healthy school food policies and using fiscal policies like taxes on sugary drinks, to influence food choices.,” Dr Vandevijvere says. “The government has signalled that it wants to make a genuine effort to reverse New Zealand’s unacceptably high rate of childhood obesity, and these three policies really need be a central part of the government’s plans for that to be successful.”

“All of the policy recommendations are achievable,” she says. “Thanks to the knowledge gained from international evidence and initiatives we can be confident that they are feasible and likely to be very effective.”

“We also know from opinion polls that the majority of New Zealanders support these policies to reduce childhood obesity,” says Dr Vandevijvere.

In March this year, the World Health Organization released the interim report of the Commission on Ending Childhood Obesity. The Commission is chaired by Professor Sir Peter Gluckman and includes former Prime Minister Helen Clark, and Dr Colin Tukuitonga.  The actions recommended by the Commission echo those made by the New Zealand health experts on the Food-EPI panel.

“New Zealand will be expected to report to WHO that it has made progress on reducing marketing of unhealthy food to children because this is one of the 25 core indicators in the WHO chronic diseases monitoring plan,” says University of Auckland population nutrition expert, Professor Boyd Swinburn.

He says New Zealand has an excellent opportunity to become a leader in the field by taking the prevention of child obesity and the protection of New Zealand children seriously and investing in highly cost-effective policies and programmes.

 “Not one of the recommendations is outside the bounds of what is feasible in a developed country, what is reasonable for government to implement, and what is expected from a New Zealand public which cares about its health and the health of its children,” says Professor Swinburn.

“The Government has made progress over the last year on the implementation of the Health Star Rating front-of-pack labelling system to better inform parents’ food purchasing decisions,” says Dr Vandevijvere. “It has also increased the level of funding for population nutrition promotion through supporting Healthy Families New Zealand in 10 low income communities, and established a technical advisory group to work on a comprehensive approach to child obesity.”

“This is good progress, but in reality it is just the start. A comprehensive strategy with these three priority polices at the centre will be needed to curb the rising child obesity trends in New Zealand.” she says. “Children need an environment where making the healthier choice is the easy, normal and preferred option.”


For media enquiries email s.phillips@auckland.ac.nz

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