Govt chose profits over child health, doctors claim

Health Minister Jonathan Coleman and Prime Minister John Key (Getty)
Health Minister Jonathan Coleman and Prime Minister John Key (Getty)

Doctors have blasted the Government over its "flawed" attempt to solve the childhood obesity epidemic, accusing it of valuing corporate profits over health and using outdated evidence.

Health Minister Jonathan Coleman launched the Government's Childhood Obesity Plan in October last year. Its 22 initiatives include public information campaigns, physical activity programmes and a plan to ensure obese children see a doctor.

It was dismissed at the time by a number of health experts, who labelled it "watery", "timid" and "ineffectual".

The criticism continues to flow nearly a year on, with an editorial in today's issue of the New Zealand Medical Journal claiming the plan is unlikely to solve the crisis because it ignores sugar, the biggest driver of childhood obesity.

"The Government's plan lacks meaningful regulation of food and drink containing concentrated sugar, instead listing soft initiatives that are unlikely to be beneficial," says lead author, Dr Gerhard Sundborn, epidemiologist at the University of Auckland.

"The New Zealand public is becoming increasingly vocal in support of a tax on sugar-sweetened drinks and frustrated with the complacent attitude of decision makers tasked with addressing New Zealand's growing obesity crisis."

Epidemiologist Dr Simon Thornley, marketing lecturer Dr Bodo Lang and NZ Dental Association chair Dr Rob Beaglehole co-authored the editorial.

"Evidence shows that we cannot educate or exercise our way out of the obesity epidemic," says Dr Sundborn. "Identification and treatment of obese pre-schoolers and pregnant mothers does not address the causes of obesity - it is the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff."

One promising initiative - the food-star labels - was botched when the Government adopted "the most industry-friendly" system, they claim.

"It is voluntary, confusing, and rates many foods with high concentrations of sugar as healthy."

The plan's focus on energy density - the number of kilojoules in food - rather than its sugar content is also criticised, because it ends up focusing on fat, rather than sugar.

"Trials of low-fat approaches are not effective for weight loss in individuals and are unlikely to be successful for populations," says Dr Sundborn.

Govt chose profits over child health, doctors claim

The Government, he says, ignored new research on the effects sugar has on the body.

"New trial and observational evidence has highlighted the unique role of sugar in the development of unhealthy weight gain, type 2 diabetes, gout, cardiovascular disease and dental caries. Considering this new evidence, sugar restriction needs to be prioritised."

Dr Sundborn also slammed the Government's refusal to slap a tax on sugary drinks. Dr Coleman says there isn't enough evidence a tax would work.

Not even Labour is promising a tax, saying it would prefer to work with the industry to lower the amount of sugar in food - at first through voluntary targets, then compulsory.