Make child obesity and poverty Budget priorities
This is Budget week, and we have asked six experts at the University of Auckland and Victoria University to tell us what they think should be included. Today, the University of Auckland's Professor Boyd Swinburn and Professor Susan St John give their views.
Boyd Swinburn is Professor of Population Nutrition and Global Health at the University of Auckland’s Faculty of Medicine and Health Services.
What is the price of a fence at the top of the cliff? Actually, not a lot when it comes to childhood obesity. Funding for preventing the major preventable diseases that are killing us has always been pathetically low – generally less than 1 percent of the health budget. So a major lift in funding for obesity prevention would barely dent Vote: Health.
However, it is mainly political capital which needs to be spent – standing up to the processed food industry and implementing effective public health policies. When the Government launched its Childhood Obesity Plan in 2015, it was roundly praised by the processed food industry and roundly panned by public health and consumer groups.
The top priorities which keep rising to the top of World Health Organisation and independent expert recommendations for obesity prevention are either low-cost or actually raise money. Prioritising children’s health over commercial wealth would see the introduction of taxes on sugary drinks which could raise about $40-50 million a year for increased health promotion.
Instituting healthy food service and food procurement policies across Government agencies and Government-funded settings such as schools and early childhood settings is a very low-cost action which would provide the political leadership so desperately needed. The current tip-toeing approach to healthy food environments for children needs to change to a leadership approach that, according to opinion polls, the public would overwhelmingly support.
Close oversight and monitoring of the advertising industry’s new self-regulatory codes on food marketing to children would cost very little, as would converting these into proper regulations if the self-regulations fail to protect children as international evidence suggests they will.
The Healthy Eating Healthy Action plan was investing about $70m a year for on-the-ground programs before it was axed in 2009. At least double this amount needs to be invested back into obesity prevention and rather than running a series of programs centrally from the Ministry of Health, the funding should be provided through DHBs to implement systems-based approaches across their regions based on the learnings from the Healthy Families NZ programs and other systems-based interventions.
While prevention is relatively cheap in dollar terms, it requires commitment in political terms – implementing the policies which public health recommends, parents support, children need, but industry opposes requires more leadership than dollars.
Associate Professor Susan St John is an Honorary Academic in the School of Economics at The University of Auckland’s Faculty of Business and Economics.
This would be a good Budget if it included a complete overhaul of family policies. Too many families have to spend too much time at foodbanks, budgeting services, WINZ offices and Housing New Zealand trying to get the extra assistance they so desperately need. CPAG research shows there are 40,000 preventable child hospital admissions due to family poverty each year. This is not good for the economy, or for mental and physical well-being.
The Government may be tempted to raise the second tax threshold from $48,000, but a $5000 increase would be worth only $12 a week at best, and only for families above the threshold. The cost of this policy would be around $625m and be a poor use of funds.
Instead this budget should assist low income households directly. The policy that requires parents work a fixed number of hours per week to access full state tax credits for their children belongs in the last century. About $500m per annum is needed to fix this. Only the worst off families would get anything, so it would be a very cost-effective way to improve New Zealand’s terrible child poverty figures.
Then the budget needs another $700m to simply restore the payments to low income working families that have been progressively cut in real terms since 2010.
This budget should then lock in annual automatic adjustments to wages and prices in much the same way as New Zealand Super is annually adjusted.
Too many of our tertiary students are exposed to mind-numbing hardship. Students have had to borrow more and more for their courses and living costs, allowing the Government to produce bigger surpluses and repay public debt. This Budget must not continue to reduce net public debt by shifting more into private debt. New Zealand already has one of the lowest net public debt to GDP ratios in the world, especially when assets in the New Zealand Superannuation Fund are counted as they should be.
Parents trying to work, study and raise children on low wages are crippled by student loan repayments and begin to lose Working for Families and accommodation supplements at very low levels of earnings. This budget needs to signal a well-thought-out debt forgiveness programme, unfreeze thresholds for loan repayments, and give a much wider entitlement to student allowances.