Call to tackle obesity epidemic

Branko Sijnja.
Branko Sijnja.
It's ''time for a change'' in the way the country tackles its ''serious'' obesity problems, New Zealand Medical Association president Branko Sijnja says.

The hard-hitting policy briefing paper, titled ''Tackling Obesity'', released today, points out New Zealand is now the fourth most obese country in the OECD, with nearly two-thirds of adults either overweight (34%) or obese (31%).

And childhood obesity is continuing to rise.

Dr Sijnja said the fact the NZMA was issuing a policy paper was ''a recognition of the seriousness'' of the obesity epidemic.

''There's a need for change.''

Obesity was a preventable risk factor for the development of various non-communicable diseases, including type-2 diabetes, heart disease and several cancers, the 38-page paper warned.

Obesity contributed to a ''huge financial burden on the healthcare system'' as well as indirect social costs, the paper said.

Dr Sijnja works part-time as a Balclutha GP.

He is also a member of the Southern District Health Board and is director of the Rural Medical Immersion Programme, involving medical student training, which is based at the University of Otago's department of general practice and rural health.

The policy paper said New Zealand's approaches to obesity were ''not doing enough'', given the country's ''unenviable'' record of being fourth worst in the OECD for obesity, behind only the United States, Mexico and Hungary.

Obesity had been identified more than two decades ago as a ''potential public health time bomb'', but efforts to tackle it had been ''piecemeal and largely unsuccessful'' in this country.

New Zealand was facing a ''scary'' future, with rising levels of adult-onset diabetes, and the country's future health system risked being overwhelmed unless obesity rates were reduced, Dr Sijnja said.

The paper said excess weight and obesity caused about 20% of all cancer cases and was also a risk factor for type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

The policy paper also makes 10 recommendations, including health professionals taking every chance to ''engage sensitively'' with patients who were obese; that Government give ''priority'' to introducing a tax for sugar-sweetened beverages; and that an easy-to-understand food labelling system, preferably the traffic light concept, be introduced on the front of packaging.

Also recommended was that food and nutrition guidelines be introduced in school canteens and all public services, including hospitals.

''Each of us individually has to accept that we are responsible for our well-being,'' Dr Sijnja said.

And, given the success of government-co-ordinated public health measures to reduce smoking, a more active approach should also be taken to countering health risks posed by sugar-sweetened beverages and inadequate food labelling, he said.

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