Rapid changes in policy by successive governments are
reducing New Zealand's ability to overcome several major public
health problems, including an internationally high obesity
rate, University of Otago Prof Barry Taylor warns.
New Zealand has one of the world's highest obesity rates, at
27%. It is behind only the United States (33%) and Mexico,
with the UK and Ireland (24%) and Australia about 15%, 2007
figures indicate. An independent task force on workplace
health and safety recently released a hard-hitting
consultation document on workplace deaths and injuries, which
says it is about twice as dangerous to work in New Zealand as
it is to work in Australia.
And it is nearly four times as risky as working in Britain.
New Zealand also has internationally high rates of melanoma
and rheumatic fever, the latter causing about 180 deaths a
Prof Taylor, a paediatrics and child health researcher at the
university's Dunedin School of Medicine, said New Zealand was
a small country with limited resources and needed to be
''nimble'' in countering public health challenges in a
well-researched and cost-effective way.
A former Labour-led Government had introduced measures to
require school shops to sell healthier foods to school
pupils. This seemed ''very sensible'' but the policy had
later been reversed by the National-led Government.
Many school shops continued to offer healthy food but some
had slipped back into providing less healthy fare when the
Government requirement was changed.
Supermarkets and some other food retailers were ''making
money by making people unhealthy'', but he emphasised there
was a ''trend coming'' towards consumers demanding healthier
food. Dunedin already had a ''great farmers market'' and he
believed supermarket owners would quickly change tack as the
healthier food trend gathered pace.
He noted that Pharmac, the Government drug-buying agency,
enjoyed wide cross-party support. This was an example of the
kind of bipartisan political consensus New Zealand needed to
build to help overcome serious public health problems.
These required ''long-term'' focus, well beyond the length of
the three-year electoral cycle.
The Public Health Commission was established in 1993 as an
independent Crown agency to advise the Government on health
policy, but it was decommissioned in 1995.
He would like to see the commission re-established to advise
about the best way of tackling public health problems, but
bipartisan support was ultimately needed.
He remained optimistic that some of New Zealand's
internationally poor public health statistics could be much
Continuing research was needed to identify evidence-based
ways of intervening most effectively, because even some
apparently common-sense approaches could prove ineffective or
counterproductive. Prof Taylor is an award-winning researcher
on cot death, obesity and diabetes.
He and Associate Prof Rachael Taylor and other colleagues are
involved in research projects linked with the Prevention of
Overweight in Infancy (POI) study. This aims to find out
whether extra information and support for families with new
babies can reduce the rate of excessive weight gain during