Healthy food policies to promote childhood health and reduce obesity are lacking, according to a panel of more than 50 New Zealand public health professionals, medical practitioners and NGO leaders.
The panel reviewed the evidence on recent government actions and rated the degree of implementation compared to international benchmarks. They also identified the top priority recommendations for the government to fill these implementation gaps.
The exercise is said to be the first systematic study on national food policies in the world. While the report card showed some strengths, it also identified a number of healthy food policies that still need to be implemented in New Zealand.
Professor Boyd Swinburn from the University of Auckland said the large number of food policies that were rated as having “very little, if any, implementation” was of particular concern.
“These were especially apparent in the areas of reducing the marketing of unhealthy foods to children and using fiscal policies, like taxes on sugary drinks, to influence food choices,” Swinburn said.
“There is also no overall plan to improve population nutrition and reduce obesity, yet unhealthy diets are the biggest preventable cause of disease and New Zealand has one of the highest rates of obesity in OECD countries.”
The panel’s report presented the results of a study assessing the New Zealand government’s level of implementation of policies and infrastructure support that are considered international good practice for improving the healthiness of food environments.
Members also identified actions for the New Zealand government to improve food environments and contribute to a reduction in obesity and diet-related diseases.
Swinburn said the top priority is now to develop a comprehensive plan to address food and diet to set a target to reduce childhood obesity.
“New Zealand will be expected to report to the WHO in 2015 that it has a fully funded, comprehensive plan to reduce non-communicable diseases [NCDs] like diabetes, cancers and cardiovascular diseases.
“The country will also be expected to report on progress on reducing the marketing of unhealthy food to children because this is one of the 25 core indicators in WHO NCD Monitoring Plan.
“This lack of government interest in protecting children from commercial exploitation will not be considered acceptable progress for a high income, high capacity country with one of the highest rates of childhood obesity in the world.”
He says that New Zealand must now take the prevention of obesity and diet-related NCDs seriously and invest in highly cost-effective policies and programmes to become a leader in the field.
“It will clearly require a much greater government effort than has recently been evident. Priority recommendations from New Zealand’s public health experts are proposed. All of them are achievable with sufficient government commitment.”