Prime Minister John Key stated publicly that obesity has replaced smoking as the number one health hazard in the country. To his credit, Mr Key ruled out a crude policy of sugar or fat taxes, and instead endorsed a sensible programme of “exercise, diet and education” to combat growing obesity.

Health Minister Dr Jonathan Coleman recently announced the details of the childhood obesity policy which comprises 22 new or expanded initiatives from Government agencies and other groups. The Ministry of Health has been working on the plan for over a year and the Government’s chief scientific advisor, Sir Peter Gluckman, said

education, layout of supermarkets and companies reducing sugar and salt levels in food make a difference.

There are three broad strands to the policy - targeted interventions for those who are obese, increased support for those at risk of becoming obese, and broad approaches to make healthier choices easier for all New Zealanders. It is the final category of policies which will have an impact on supermarkets and stores.

The food and beverage industry will work in partnership with the government to build on a number of initiatives which are already underway.

This includes the possibility of voluntary industry pledges, and changes to food labelling, marketing and advertising to children. The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) will undertake a review of the Code for Advertising to Children and the Children’s Code for Advertising Food. A consumer campaign will commence in March 2016 to raise awareness of the Health Star Rating promotion which is a voluntary front of- pack nutrition labelling system developed for use in New Zealand and Australia. Health Stars help consumers to make better informed, healthier choices quickly and easily.

There will also be a broader information campaign which will see agencies develop additional nutrition and physical activity advice for the public. Having accurate and easily accessible information is important to help people make better choices about food and physical activity. Starting in November 2015, there will be a national media campaign focussed on childhood obesity, targeted at parents and caregivers of children. NARGON congratulates the Government on recognising that there are many causes of childhood obesity.

The supermarket industry certainly has a role to play but it cannot directly change parental and personal choices about diet and exercise. The Government’s new approach is broad but that is the only way this complicated issue can be addressed going forward. Our members are willing to do their part to improve the future health of young New Zealanders.

Not everyone is happy with the policy though. New Zealand First is again calling for GST to be removed from healthy foods, seemingly ignoring the obvious practical problems which compelled Labour to drop the same policy from their manifesto. The Greens argue there should be a tax on sugary drinks and they should be banned from being sold in schools.

Lobby group “Fizz”, largely made up of taxpayer-funded researchers and doctors, have been advocating for the end of the sale of sugary drinks in New Zealand. They want a sugary drinks tax, a restriction on sales and advertising, graphic warning labels on products and sugar free drink policies in workplaces and institutions.

Prominent political blogger and a man who has dropped a lot of weight through better eating and running, David Farrar, has been critical of the Greens approach but fell victim to a hoax article. He deplored the apparent decision by a local council in Australia to declare a “gluten-free zone” due to the “excessive amount of gluten being served at local restaurants and diners.”

The article was satire but Mr Farrar said, in his defence, it was getting harder to differentiate between satire and public health policy. He has a point and that is a sad reflection on the current state of the debate.

Trina Snow, Executive Director, NARGON