Childhood obesity plan – Expert reaction

A wide-ranging series of initiatives designed to tackle childhood obesity was unveiled by the Government yesterday afternoon.

Child obesityThe package is made up of 22 initiatives, which are either new or an expansion of existing programmes. The focus is on food, the environment and being active at each life stage, starting during pregnancy and early childhood.

At the centre of the plan is the target to have 95 per cent of children identified as obese in the B4 School Check referred to an appropriate health professional for clinical assessment and family based nutrition, activity and lifestyle interventions.

“Being overweight or obese is expected to overtake tobacco as the leading preventable risk to health in New Zealand within the next 12 months,” Health Minister Jonathan Coleman said in a media release announcing the plans.

“There is no single solution that will fix obesity. That’s why we have developed a range of interventions across Government, the private sector, communities, schools and families.”

The Science Media Centre collected the following expert commentary. Feel free to use these quotes in your reporting. Contact the SMC to speak to an expert.

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.”