Powerful and influential food industry lobbies in Australia and New Zealand have set the two countries to fail in stemming their obesity epidemics, a new study has suggested.
According to the report, which was published in the journal Obesity Reviews, the governments’ inability to invest in obesity prevention or enact any major healthy food policies has served to worsen obesity statistics in the two countries. Serious action will be needed to reverse this trend, it warns.
New Zealand is now the third fattest of OECD countries, behind the US and Mexico, while Australia is fifth behind Chile. Obesity among children continues to increase in New Zealand, though it has become flat in Australia.
“Both countries have remarkably little progress to show for more than two decades of awareness of the escalating obesity crisis,” said Professor Boyd Swinburn, study leader and professor of population nutrition and global health at the University of Auckland.
“In some cases this inaction has been due to the government having a world view dominated by individual responsibility and choice, but at the same time they have provided no policy support for people’s healthy food choices,” he added.
Swinburn placed the blame of this lack of policy support at the doorsteps of the food processing industry in the two countries, stating that their powerful lobbies have compromised decision-making at the highest levels.
“The food industry has become both heavily embedded in the policy-making process, [despite glaring conflicts of interest], and enormously successful at applying lobbying pressure to keep healthy food policies off the agenda,” he said.
Powerful lobbies killing policies
Swinburn, who is also co-director of the WHO’s Collaborating Centre for Obesity Prevention, based at Deakin University in Melbourne, said that his research went into 20 years of obesity prevention efforts in the two countries.
He pointed out that both countries made little progress in terms of specific policy actions, such as in marketing to children, front-of-pack labelling, fiscal policies and public sector healthy food service policies.
“The rapid increase in media reports on obesity in the early 2000s created the pressure for action. Several comprehensive reports produced some programmed investment, but no substantive healthy food policies were implemented,” he said.
“The powerful lobby from the processed food industry has ensured that any healthy food policies which might threaten their profits do not get up.
“Governments in both New Zealand and Australia have even been spooked into not daring to regulate unhealthy food marketing to children, despite being the middle of a childhood obesity epidemic.”
Swinburn pointed to a glaring example where the New Zealand government back-pedalled on forthright action by rescinding healthy school food guidelines and withdrawing funding for the comprehensive national obesity strategy.
Inaction worse in New Zealand
Swinburn however did mark out the positives, including the Australian government’s major long-term investment in preventative health in 2007 in order to improve economic productivity.
Other positive initiatives in Australia were the establishment of various advocacy organisations, successful long-term community projects reducing childhood obesity, and a national knowledge exchange system for practitioners.
On New Zealand, Swinburn said that while there were light positives like community programmes, key food policies were still not being implemented largely due to the private sector interests dominating public policy development.
“New Zealand signed up to WHO’s Global Action Plan to address the mounting toll from obesity and chronic diseases in May this year, and I hope that provides a fresh stimulus to revisiting some of these recommended policies,” he said.