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Minister slams NZ's “Couch Potato” award for obesity

By RJ Whitehead , 29-Oct-2012

The New Zealand government has lashed out against the recent Couch Potato Awards, which pitted arch-rivals Australia and New Zealand against each other to decide which country has made the least effort to implement obesity policies.

In what New Zealand’s health minister has branded a “pithy publicity stunt”, Australia’s trans-Tasman neighbour came second in a low-scoring contest devised by the Australia New Zealand Obesity Society (ANZOS) last week.

This year’s awards looked at eight areas of government action, including leadership, food marketing, food labelling, fiscal policies and social marketing to tackle the pressing issue of obesity in both countries. 

Jane Martin, chair of the Public Health Subcommittee of ANZOS, said that while Australia won on points, both countries failed to score highly in any of the categories, despite obesity rates reaching record levels in Australia and New Zealand.

Obesity on the increase

While Australians and New Zealanders like to perceive themselves as sporty, outdoorsy types, they are in fact exercising too little and eating too much junk food. Around two-thirds of Australians and New Zealanders are overweight or obese,” she said.

It’s extremely concerning that despite these rates, the New Zealand government has shown particularly weak leadership in the area of health promotion, in fact it appears adverse to it while providing concessions to the processed food industry.”

In the past few years, the New Zealand Government has defunded programmes such as Healthy Eating, Health Action and pulled away from healthy eating policies in schools, Martin claimed, citing the need for these initiatives to be reinstated. 

She added that, while both countries share the ongoing problems of confusing food labelling and relentless, unhealthy food marketing targeting children, Australia has taken a more comprehensive approach to tackling obesity through whole of community programmes. 

Australia, meanwhile, has seen state governments using federal funding to enhance some programmes that tackle obesity.

Australia has also made some progress via the Australian National Preventative Health Agency in social marketing – creating advertising to encourage healthier behaviours such as the Swap It campaign – however more could certainly be done in this area,” Martin said.   

However, she added that the overriding theme of the health policy in both countries was the interference of unhealthy food industry in the process. 

In food labelling and food marketing, we are seeing both governments put the commercial interests ahead of the health of the population.”

Government weighs in

Subsequently, Tony Ryall, New Zealand’s health minister, has reacted angrily to ANZOS’s critique, saying that the Couch Potato Awards were no more than a means to gain an audience. “This is a pithy publicity stunt,” he said. The government puts a lot of resource into health promotion,” he countered, including nutrition education for pregnant women and the parents of young children, and granting permanent funding to a programme that provides free fruit to young schoolchildren.

According to the New Zealand Adult Nutrition survey, one in three Kiwi adults is overweight, and one in four is obese. In 1977, only 9% of males and 11% of females were obese, meaning that obesity rates have nearly tripled in recent decades.

Diabetes NZ was not surprised by the Obesity Society award. "The worst thing [the Government] did was that they abandoned the rule that demanded school tuckshops and canteens only had healthy food available for sale," its president, Chris Baty, said.

"It's not just a matter of an individual eating too much and not being active enough; it's actually a societal problem.”

No answers to be found

In response to the government’s claims, one New Zealand newspaper sent out two reporters over three days to contact health organisations in the country. Their aim was to find someone who had an overview of the programmes and funding related to obesity.

One of the journalists of the Wairarapa Times-Age, Heather McCracken, reported back: “We were referred to people who had been through programmes that were no longer funded. We were referred to people who said it wasn't their focus. We were referred to people who said they didn't have enough of an overview to comment.

All in all, the picture that seemed to be forming was one of a lack of cohesion, lack of funding, and lack of co-ordination.

Editor's note: Is the New Zealand government doing enough to stave off the country's growing obesity problem? And are the Couch Potato Awards merely a cheap stunt to gain publicity? Let us know in the comments below.

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