17 Apr 2015

Sugar taxes needed too - Swinburn

6:39 pm on 17 April 2015

The Government will need more than just its new programme to tackle obesity to truly address the epidemic, a professor of population nutrition says.

obese women

Photo: AFP

Health Minister Jonathan Coleman is launching the rollout of the Healthy Families New Zealand initiative in Gisborne today and is promising it will deliver results in the most affected communities.

Jonathan Coleman.

Jonathan Coleman. Photo: RNZ

Mr Coleman said that though there was no silver bullet about solving obesity, the programme would be useful.

"It's an exciting initiative and it's all about having tailored solutions for local communities."

The initiative would empower communities on obesity, smoking, alcohol and other key health topics, he said.

Boyd Swinburn, professor of population nutrition and global health at Auckland University, said until the last few months, the Government had had obesity prevention in reverse gear.

He told Morning Report the new community-based programme could not be the full solution.

"Thinks like tax on sugary drinks and restrictions on junk food marketing have to be implemented if we're going to see a full result across the whole community."

'Not the food police'

Following its launch in Gisborne today, Healthy Families NZ will be rolled out in Invercargill, Spreydon-Heathcote, Lower Hutt, Rotorua, Whanganui, Manukau, Manurewa-Papakura, Waitakere and the Far North.

The programme is modelled on an initiative in Victoria, Australia, that reduced waist sizes in children.

Ministry of Health programme director Michelle Palmer said it was about the Government helping communities make decisions on what they need, not telling them what they should do.

"It's really getting to understand how their community works: where are the liquor outlets, where are the schools, where are the fast-food outlets, who are the organisations in each of these communities that are already out there doing things that could potentially link up better; as opposed to going out there and throwing a whole heap of new programmes and initiatives into the community."

Whether schools want to offer fewer sugary foods or drinks will be up to them. "That will be a choice that individual schools will make," said Mrs Palmer.

"We're not the food police but this will be driven locally, so I think what we've seen in Tolaga Bay where the local community there has driven out pokie machines from their area ... that's the type of change that can happen on the ground by local leadership and the community saying we want to make a choice here."

Another aspect will be encouraging physical activity as a normal part of everyday life.

Professor of medicine and nutrition at Otago University Jim Mann said the scheme was a good start.

But he said the Government should bring back the Healthy Schools programme it ditched in its first term, which tightened up the rules around schools and junk food.

Mr Mann said there was a clear problem at play, when overweight children were selling chocolate for school fundraisers.

Food industry regulation needed - researcher

A public health researcher said the Government should instead be regulating the food industry rather than the Healthy Families New Zealand initiative.

Professor of public health at Otago University Nick Wilson said the programme may have a small positive effect.

"But when the wider environment isn't fixing the price signals and junk food advertising is on television programmes directed at children and the food labelling isn't clear for parents and children as well we aren't really fixing the big things."

Mr Wilson said strong regulation, such as a tax on fizzy drinks, would make a much greater difference.

However, the group representing the food industry said community-based initiatives were more effective at targeting obesity than legislation.

But the Food Industry Group's chairman Lindsay Mouat said community-based projects were better than legislation because the causes of obesity differed between regions.

He said he was glad to see exercise highlighted in the programme because targeting food alone would not address obesity.

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