Obesity among highest

Barry Taylor
Barry Taylor
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 year.

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 improved.

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 infancy.


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