Economic insecurity is likely to be a major factor in New
Zealand's growing obesity epidemic, University of Otago
economist Dr Trenton Smith believes.
Dr Smith, a senior lecturer in economics, was speaking in
Dunedin yesterday at the Otago International Health Research
Network's fifth annual conference.
Speaking later, he said obesity also often led to adverse
health and social outcomes.
Some countries, including New Zealand, had pursued market
liberalisation policies, in which some state assets had been
privatised and more market approaches adopted.
Some economic risks linked to employment had effectively been
transferred from the state to individual workers and their
families, contributing to increased insecurity among some
Research showed strong links between such countries -
including New Zealand - and rapidly rising obesity problems.
"There's a lot of evidence," he added.
In the United States in 2007, 33% of the population was
classified as obese, New Zealand following close behind with
27%, followed by the UK and Ireland (24%). Australia, Canada
and Spain all had obesity rates of more than 15%.
He noted that in the UK, a government study of many thousands
of civil servants found body weight had increased
significantly among workers in one government department
which had been switched to private sector control, increasing
their insecurity about retaining their jobs.
Many economic studies aiming to trace the cause of rising
obesity rates around the world had focused on food markets,
high-calorie foods having become cheaper and more widespread.
He noted that, in nature, fattening was a response to food
scarcity, animals storing energy as fat to survive periods
when resources were in short supply.
Humans were "no different", often responding to economic
insecurity in the same way.
In future, New Zealand government policies that aimed to
improve workers' sense of security and their enjoyment of
work could be used to help in "curbing obesity rates".
Such new policy steps could include encouraging worker
representation on company boards, which had already proved
successful in Germany, he said.