health & science

Government’s obesity plan still unclear

Tackling obesity, especially amongst children, has proven difficult for successive governments. With the current Government still deciding on its approach, officials have thrown out some ideas. Shane Cowlishaw reports.

Moving away from junk food sponsorship and canning ‘supersize’ portions have again been raised by the Ministry of Health as ways to tackle the obesity problem.

The Government is considering how to address the obesity epidemic but has been reluctant to commit to hard targets or measures such as a sugar tax.

Instead, it’s favoured engaging with the industry to encourage change before taking any regulatory steps.

Health Minister David Clark received a briefing from ministry officials earlier this year ahead of a meeting with some of the large food and beverage companies including McDonald’s, Coca-Cola, Nestle, and Fonterra.

Its advice included “further voluntary initiatives for discussion” such as discouraging sponsorship of sporting teams or events by fast food brands.

Other possibilities floated included reducing portion sizes, eliminating ‘supersize’ items and setting nutrient health targets that would specify the amount of sugar, saturated fat or salt per 100g serving.

Many of the ideas were suggested by the Ministry in its 2015 report on options to address childhood obesity.

Later that year the National government released its childhood obesity plan made up of 22 initiatives including a focus on sport and promoting the health star rating system.

It was heavily criticised for both ignoring sugar and ignoring advice to set an aggressive target on childhood obesity.

Shortly before last year’s election a further 15 indicators to monitor the problem were announced, to be reported on annually.

Clark declined to comment on some of the possibilities floated in the briefing, instead stating the ministry was developing a “fresh approach” to obesity that he was awaiting advice on.

While he would look at what was being done overseas, such as the UK Government’s recent childhood obesity plan, he would wait to see what worked before adopting anything.

While Clark wouldn’t talk about future options, the briefing also provided a summary of current efforts and how they could be improved.

Healthy kids industry pledge

You’d be forgiven for not knowing much about this voluntary initiative, which is a partnership between government and the industry to reduce childhood obesity.

By signing up, companies commit to considering reformulating their products, improving labelling and supporting responsible marketing and advertising.

Perhaps most interestingly, they also agree to publicly report on their progress.

Since it was introduced in October 2016, 10 companies have signed up, with eight having reported back to the ministry by the end of last year.

But the briefing notes that while there’s the potential to boost the initiative's profile and introduce independent monitoring, currently it lacked substance.

“It is therefore difficult to assess the effectiveness of the pledge in changing industry behaviour and to assess the progress under each pledge commitment.

“For example, some of the reported initiatives have spanned several years and may not have been in direct response to the pledge.”

Health star rating

Another voluntary approach to food regulation, the health star rating was introduced in 2014 and rates the nutritional content of food from 0.5 to five stars.

Used across both New Zealand and Australia, the scheme has slowly been gaining in popularity.

In the July-September 2017 quarter, 3500 products carried the label, up 21 percent from the January-March quarter.

While further work could be done to improve consumer knowledge of the system, a formal five-year review is underway with a report expected back in 2019 looking into the success of the system and how it could be improved.

The University of Auckland has also been awarded $5 million to look into the effectiveness of the labels.

Advertising standards

Colourful imagery and characters used by companies to appeal to children have long been criticised as a contributor to the childhood obesity problem.

In 2017, the Advertising Standards Authority reviewed its codes and introduced new rules - the Children and Young People’s Advertising Code - covering advertising for food and beverages high in fat, salt or sugar.

But the code was criticised as not going far enough, particularly because it didn’t extend to product packaging.

The briefing noted the criticism that the code could not be expected to provide substantial protection for children from unhealthy foods, and suggested possible enhancements.

“An independent evaluation of the … code would be valuable to determine its effectiveness.

“Working alongside the ASA, an independent audit could be established to proactively look at advertisements before complaints are made and possibly undertake an annual evaluation of advertisements.”

Alcohol labelling and consumption

Measures to raise awareness of not only the harm alcohol can do, but also its high kilojoule content, appear to be on the way.

The briefing notes that there has been little effort to raise awareness on the contribution alcohol makes to overall energy consumption, including the influence it has on food choices.

Many beers may be low in sugar, but are high in kilojoules. Photo: John Sefton

“There are a range of options available, from health promotion through to regulatory levers, to address this and to further discourage excess consumption, particularly among young people where the greatest increase in the obesity rate by age occurs.”

Recently an advertising campaign by the Brewers Association, which represents the large brewers Lion and DB, was found by the Advertising Standards Authority to have breached standards by using Olympic gold medallist Eric Murray to market beer.

Such advertising could also soon be ruled out, however, with the briefing noting that Food Standards Australia New Zealand was looking at what nutrition content claims could be placed on alcoholic beverages.

In particular, this would look at whether low sugar claims, which could imply they were healthier, should be allowed under the carbohydrate category, which is one of only three permitted alongside energy and gluten levels.

Another Trans-Tasman organisation, the Food Regulation Standing Committee, is also currently considering whether alcohol should continue to be exempt from the requirement to provide a nutrient information panel.

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