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Call for tobacco-style controls on junk food (NZ)

June 4, 2008

Initiatives to try and stem the sale of tobacco should be applied in a similar way to unhealthy foods, a health watchdog says.

Responding to a government health survey which showed continued high levels of obesity in New Zealanders, the Obesity Action Coalition (OAC) called for increased access to health foods, along with a crack-down on fast food.

The survey, A Portrait of Health, showed there was an increase in the prevalence of obesity in adults from 1997 to 2006/2007, although the increase was slowing.

It showed one in three (36 per cent) adults were now overweight and a further one in four (27 per cent) were obese.

With children aged two to 14, 68 per cent had a body mass considered normal, one in five were overweight and a further one in 12 were obese.

OAC director Leigh Sturgiss said it was positive that results showed obesity rates were slowing, but there was a long way to go if the potential burden on the health system was to be reduced.

Statistics also showed the number of New Zealanders smoking had fallen to its lowest level since monitoring of tobacco use began more than 30 years ago.

A record low of 19.9 per cent of the population over the age of 15 were smokers.

Ms Sturgiss said it was no coincidence that access to, and promotion of tobacco had been increasingly restricted over the past 15 years. "We need the same to happen for unhealthy foods," she said.

"Currently, it's easier and often cheaper to buy high fat, high salt and high sugar foods, than healthy foods like fruit or vegetables.

"People should have access to healthy foods regardless of their income."

Ms Sturgiss said consumers were overwhelmed by promotions for fast food and sugary drinks, and it was a big ask to expect programmes that promote healthy eating to redress the balance.

"There is strong evidence that advertising and marketing food has an effect on what children prefer, buy and eat.

"Television is the main means of marketing to children and this report notes that television viewing is strongly associated with obesity in children."

Some promotions, such as netball awards sponsored by McDonalds, were shameless targeting of kids," she said.

"Again, we need to take a leaf out of the tobacco control book and ban advertising and sponsorship of unhealthy foods."

Fight the Obesity Epidemic spokeswoman Robyn Toomath said it was good to see obesity rates levelling off, but over a quarter of adults were still overweight, compared to about 10 per cent 30 years ago.

"The impact of the large increase in recent years of overweight and obese children has yet to hit the health system so we need to work hard to not only slow, but reverse the upward trend in obesity," Dr Toomath said.

She said it was worrying to learn how much children consumed fast food and watched television, which exposed them to fast food advertising as well as rendering them inactive.

Food Industry Group executive director Vicki Hamilton said self-regulation was the best option in fighting the obesity problem and that approach appeared to be working.

Ms Hamilton said recent research showed 94 per cent of parents agreed they had high levels of information about the products they bought, and the ability to choose "healthy" versus "unhealthy" foods.

While children had some influence over their parents' food selection, there were no indications children were dominating the purchase decision process or manipulating parents into inappropriate food choices, she said.

The main concern in the research was that healthy food be kept affordable to those trying to balance family budgets.

Ms Hamilton disagreed with calls to apply a regulatory tobacco model around certain foods.

"Every cigarette smoked is a danger, but a piece of cake or ice-cream eaten as part of balanced diet is not," she said.




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