Obesity plan gets thumbs down from experts

The Government yesterday released details of 22 initiatives, some new, some expansions of existing programmes, that constitute its response to the growing problem of childhood obesity.

As expected, there’s no form of fat or sugar tax and no clampdown on marketing of junk food to children.

The Government's Childhood Obesity Plan
The Government’s Childhood Obesity Plan

Voluntary codes and and education campaigns are favoured over regulation and taxation. At the Science Media Centre we gathered commentary from public health experts and its reaction has been lukewarm at best (full comments below).

Professor Boyd Swinburn, Professor of Population Nutrition and Global Health at the University of Auckland, perhaps sums it up best:

“The government’s plan has a few positive new strategies, but it is a watery, timid rendition of the ECHO report.”

The ECHO report was released last month by the World Health Organisation’s Commission on Ending Childhood Obesity, which is co-chaired by the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor and paediatrics expert, Professor Sir Peter Gluckman. It also featured input from former Prime Minister Helen Clark, who is the administrator of the United Nations Development programme.

Among the ECHO recommendations:

  • Imposing an effective tax on sugar-sweetened non-alcoholic beverages.
  • Implementing the Set of Recommendations on the Marketing of Foods and Non-alcoholic Beverages to Children.
  • Developing clear definitions of age-categories and types of marketing, to facilitate uniform implementation.
  • Ensuring settings where children and adolescents gather and the screen-based offerings they watch or participate in, are free of marketing of unhealthy foods and non- alcoholic beverages.
  • Developing nutrient-profiles to help Member States to identify unhealthy foods and non- alcoholic beverages.
  • Cooperating with other Member States to reduce the impact of cross- border marketing of unhealthy foods and non- alcoholic beverages.
  • Implementing a standardized global nutrient labelling system.
  • Considering interpretive front-of-pack labelling supported by public education of both adults and children for nutrition literacy.
  • Creating healthy food environments in settings such as schools, child-care settings, sports facilities and events, urban and rural communities
  • Giving particular attention to increasing access to healthy foods in disadvantaged communities.

The report lists many other recommendations, but those above are notable in that they focus on taxation and the marketing of food and beverages to children. None of this has been reflected in the Government’s obesity action plan. Instead we have the “Health Star Rating”, a voluntary front of pack nutrition labelling system developed for New Zealand and Australia only.

There’s a provision for the Advertising Standards Authority to “undertake a review of the Code for Advertising to Children and the Children’s Code for Advertising Food”.

There’s mention of discussion of “partnerships with industry” and “voluntary industry pledges”, but no concrete outcomes or requirements on industry to change its behaviour.

To have so little of the ECHO report, which featured significant input from Sir Peter Gluckman, an expert in this area, reflected in the Government’s strategy, has surprised public health experts.

Experts react

Here’s what some of them had to say:

Prof Boyd Swinburn, Professor of Population Nutrition and Global Health,  University of Auckland, comments:

“WHO has for decades been gathering the evidence on what works for reducing obesity, writing authoritative reports with recommendations, getting governments to sign up to them and then we get this plan which bears little resemblance to those recommendations.

“Professor Sir Peter Gluckman, the PM’s Chief Science Advisor, co-chaired the WHO Commission on Ending Childhood Obesity (ECHO) which produced an excellent report in September.

“The government’s plan has a few positive new strategies, but it is a watery, timid rendition of the ECHO report.”

Barry Taylor, Dean of the Dunedin School of Medicine, University of Otago, comments:

“Support for children and families of unhealthy weight is very welcome. Some very sensible initiatives are being promoted, some initiatives have not got a good evidence base behind them and the use of a target which is a process rather than a health outcome questionable.

“It is disappointing that regulation of advertising of unhealthy foods to children is not being regulated.“

Dr Barrie Gordon, Senior Lecturer, School of Education, Victoria University Wellington, comments:

“It’s a multifaceted approach which is positive.

“There seems to be confusion between sport and physical education. These are not the same.

“The devil will be in the detail. Who will be providing the professional learning and development for teachers, for example, and what will be the content?”

Prof Elaine Rush, Professor of Nutrition, AUT, comments:

“This plan has broad brush guidelines and a targeted individual approach. The World Health Organisation Commission on Ending Childhood Obesity emphasises a regulatory framework and amongst other policy actions emphases that issues of food security should be considered and school-based physical education (not sport) is inclusive.

“Where is the evidence that this will work?

“Of the 22 ‘initiatives’, half are guidelines, resources and voluntary regulation! Where is the evidence that guidelines work? You can tell people to eat their vegetables but they won’t unless they are available, affordable and the environment supports this.

“There are three initiatives around sport – sport does not suit every one. For children it should be play and the acquisition of fundamental movement skills.

“The only policy is healthy food policies in DHBs and finally these are gaining traction as reporting is required. But it is not new – what would be new would be all government and education facilities requiring the same standard.

“We do have evidence from the Waikato that working with primary and preschools to promote healthy eating and physical activity works in a cost effective way. The Project Energize way over 10 years has shown how, with a whole of school and community approach.”

Dr Stefanie Vandevijvere, Senior Research Fellow, Global Health, Food Policy, Obesity and NCD prevention, School of Population Health, University of Auckland, comments:

“I am really very disappointed. Especially since the draft final report of the Commission on Ending Childhood Obesity (ECHO), chaired by Sir Peter Gluckman, was recently published and it seems Government refuses to follow those international recommendations.

“The real problem is the obesogenic food environment, for which there are no bold actions in the plan, apart from the removal of sugary drinks in DHBs and hospitals which is a great action, but totally insufficient. One really wonders why creating healthy food environments in schools and early childhood education centres is not part of the plan?

“One of the other top priorities is tougher restrictions on junk food marketing to kids. It seems the Advertising Standards Authority is going to revise its own code and thus the government sticks to self-regulation while the ECHO report clearly emphasizes that self-regulation has not worked anywhere (including in New Zealand) across the globe to reduce exposure of children to unhealthy food marketing and that regulation is the way to go.

“What more can I say? While I did not expect sugar taxes to be part of the current plan (although I think they would be needed too to as part of a comprehensive strategy), I am really disappointed to see that the Government does not protect NZ children by restricting junk food marketing through regulation and creating healthy school and Early Childhood Education food environments.

“Health star ratings, healthy DHB food policies and Healthy families are all good actions, but they have been previously announced and they won’t be anywhere near sufficient to turn the tide on childhood obesity in New Zealand.”

7 Comments

  1. Anabel

    Amazing that the cause (of overeating an insufficient exercise)of being over weight is ignored.

    As though its got anything to do with a corporation (govt) that is run by the same mega corporations that produce, advertise and sell junk processed foods.

  2. Anne Scott

    Two comments. Firstly, I would very much like to see a complete survey of manufacturers’ initiatives to adjust their own product formulations to reduce sugar, salt, fat – it is easy to make dismissive comments about manufacturers’ supposed lack of attention in this area but it is real, to the extent that there is now concern being expressed among food safety/food technology practitioners that there are very real risks to food safety in some foods that now contain insufficient quantities of sugar or salt to confer the preservative function that they offer – but they are healthier! (Why do you think labels for sauces and preserves have “refrigerate after opening” labels nowadays?)
    Secondly, the elephant in the room is that our “obesogenic environment” has come upon us over decades and will not be corrected overnight (nor in one or two years). To blame food manufacturers and their advertising of “unhealthy” foods is simplistic, they are an easy target and many of them quietly run programmes for schools that address the issue, but these programmes, sadly, are dismissed as marketing, (just like Mark Hanna’s comment re Coca Cola) which they can be, but the messages for schoolchildren are still valid. Once again, a survey and assessment of materials that are available to schools for teaching healthy eating would be useful, and make it more difficult for sweeping statements to be taken as fact.
    So, who could we ask to find this data?

  3. Mark Hanna

    The Advertising Standards Authority have also put out a press release in which they confirm they will be updating their codes for advertising to children: http://www.scoop.co.nz/stories/BU1510/S00626/asa-to-review-codes-on-advertising-to-children.htm

    In the release, they reveal that “Since the introduction of the Children’s Code for Advertising Food in 2010, nine complaints have been dealt with under this Code”. Looking at the list, I’ve found all 9 of those complaints were unsuccessful: http://asa.sbh.nz/code/Children%27s+Code+for+Advertising+Food

    As I said in my previous comment, given that a large part of this regulatory system is complaint-based, I don’t think this bodes well for how effective it will be. With so few complaints being made, we have to rely primarily on broadcasters and advertisers adhering to the voluntary code, remembering that the only punishment for violating it is being asked to remove the offending ad.

  4. Mark Hanna

    This provision for the ASA to review its code for advertising food to children (http://www.asa.co.nz/codes/codes/childrens-code-for-advertising-food/) sheds some light on a vague press release the Association of New Zealand Advertisers (ANZA) put out earlier this month: http://www.scoop.co.nz/stories/BU1510/S00200/advertisers-call-for-review-of-advertising-codes.htm

    I found it a very vague press release, but the impression I got from it is that they think the ASA’s codes for advertising to children should be relaxed because they assert “many major food and drink advertisers” have already stopped advertising to children.

    Broadcasters *should* be able to do a decent job of checking advertisements abide by the ASA’s (voluntary) codes before airing the advertisements, but in reality many ads get through that should not. Given that the ASA’s system of regulation is voluntary and relies entirely on consumer and competitor complaints, I don’t think this is going to be an effective method of fixing the issue of irresponsible advertising of sugary foods to children.

    Although most of my experience with the ASA regards therapeutic advertisements, I do have a lot of experience with them (I’ve laid more successful complaints with them than anyone else: http://asa.sbh.nz/). I think the ASA does a great job, but the voluntary nature of this regulatory system and its lack of deterrents (such as fines) work against it.

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