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OBESITY INQUIRY

The Health Select Committee of the New Zealand Parliament held an Inquiry into Obesity and Type 2 Diabetes.  Submissions to the Committee in 2006 paint a clear picture of the very different approaches to obesity prevention favoured by the health sector and business interests.

The Committee’s recommendations could make a big difference to preventing obesity. But progress in implementing these has been disappointing. Their report must not be left to gather dust. It provides a guide for substantial new directions for obesity prevention.

Health and business ‘poles apart’ on obesity prevention

Submissions from the food and advertising industries (‘Industry’) took opposing positions on obesity prevention to those from a wide range of professionals and groups from the health sector (‘Health’).  In particular, industry believes the focus should be on educating consumers to make healthy choices.  The health sector believes that this is less important than making changes to the environment that make healthy choices easier.

Issues on which the industry and health sectors differed markedly include:

Changing the obesogenic environment

Health says: Education and information provision have been shown to be ineffective as the primary means of improving public health.  Environmental changes to make it easier for people to make healthy choices need to be the central focus for obesity prevention.

Industry says: Obesity prevention should focus on educating people and providing them with information that will enable them to make healthier choices.

The adequacy of current approaches

Health says: While the Government’s Healthy Eating – Healthy Action (HEHA) strategy includes some good projects, it fails to adequately address the underlying environmental drivers of obesity.

Industry says: The HEHA strategy, which includes working with industry to achieve voluntary changes, is working effectively. No change in strategy is required.

Advertising of less healthy food

Health says: The Advertising Standards Authority codes are ineffective, and some form of government regulation of the advertising of less healthy food, particularly to children, is required.

Industry says: Current voluntary measures (the Advertising Standards Authority codes) are working effectively. Further measures are not required.

Price incentives to encourage healthy eating

Health says: Pricing mechanisms, such as subsiding healthy food or additional tax on unhealthy food, are a particularly useful measure because they have impact across the population. In particular, reducing the price of healthy food would assist segments of the population most affected by obesity.

Industry says: Population-level measures such as increased tax on certain foods are inappropriate because they would adversely affect many consumers who are not obese, and would have little impact on consumption while increasing the price of food for those who could least afford it.

Food labelling and the traffic light system

Health says: A simple labelling system that distinguishes more healthy from less healthy food is required. This would particularly assist segments of the population among whom obesity and type 2 diabetes are more prevalent.  A traffic light system that readily distinguishes foods that should be eaten regularly from those that should eaten only occasionally as treats would achieve this.

Industry says: No commercially available foods are unhealthy in themselves, although some should not be consumed in large amounts. This implies that efforts to label some foods as more or less healthy are ill-conceived.

The Health Committee Report

FOE welcomed the Select Committee’s report that was released in August 2007.  Key points in the report are:

  • The rapid rise in obesity results from multiple causes which have created an environment where less healthy choices have become the easy choices
  • Comprehensive prevention is the key to reducing obesity and type 2 diabetes. Educational strategies alone will be insufficient
  • Obesity is the main preventable cause of type 2 diabetes, so an effective strategy to reduce obesity will also bring about a significant reduction in type 2 diabetes.

Their report notes that:

  • The food and beverage industry is not sufficiently engaged in the prevention of obesity despite having an important role in causing it
  • The advertising, marketing and promotion industry has the potential to play a key role in the prevention of obesity but has not yet engaged seriously as part of the solution.

It concludes that environmental measures are needed to make healthy choices easier and cheaper. These would include:

  • Increasing the availability, accessibility and affordability of healthier foods, while reducing the availability of energy-dense products
  • Increasing the advertising, marketing and promotion of healthier food options, and reducing that for energy-dense products.

A majority of the Committee recommended introducing restrictions on the advertising, promotion and marketing of unhealthy food and drink to children, including no advertising of energy-dense products by broadcast media before 8.30pm.

The report notes that submitters expressed reasonably strong support for a user-friendly, readily understood system for labelling food and drinks to distinguish relatively healthy food from relatively unhealthy food. Some members of the Committee strongly favoured a traffic light system to achieve this.

On the issue of regulation, the report recommends that measurable targets for the food industry be established, with strict and reasonably short timeframes. Regulation should follow if the targets are not achieved.

The National Party expressed a minority opinion in the Report, indicating their opposition to regulation, and preference for solutions based on changing individual attitudes about healthy choices.

The response to the Report by the previous government

The Labour-led government issued its response to the Health Committee Report in November 2007.  The response was largely a recital of actions that the Government had taken, or planned to take, to combat obesity and type 2 diabetes. It failed to take on board significant new directions from the Health Committee’s Report.

FOE was particularly disappointed that the Government failed to accept the recommendation to restrict advertising of energy-dense food on broadcast media until after 8.30pm, and continued to rely on voluntary actions by industry.

Where next?

The Health Committee Report is a New Zealand landmark in stating key principles for obesity prevention. Not all of these principles have been fully accepted by the National Party, which leads the present government.  As well, the Labour Party, as indicated by its response to the Report, was lukewarm about turning some of the principles into policy when it led the previous government.

It would be a retrograde step for obesity prevention in New Zealand if the Report is confined to history. Its key principles remain central to obesity prevention.  Implementing these principles into government policy will be a challenge.

References

The Health Select Committee Inquiry into Obesity and Type Two Diabetes in New Zealand: An initial analysis of submissions, FOE, 2007. (PDF)

This report on the Obesity Inquiry highlights the different approaches to obesity prevention found in submissions made by health and industry groups.

Inquiry into Obesity and Type 2 Diabetes in New Zealand: Report of the Health Committee. Wellington: Forty-eight Parliament, 2007. (PDF)

Government response to the Inquiry into Obesity and Type 2 Diabetes 2007 (PDF)

Read more about the  traffic light food labelling system FOE website

FOE media releases

Government response crucial for progress on obesity, 31 August 2007

New report highlights divisions over obesity prevention, 28 March 2007

FOE submission calls for radical action on obesity, 17 May 2006