It has been revealed that the Government rejected official advice to set tougher targets to deal with child obesity. The decision to take a soft approach to deal with rising child obesity should be no surprise to those concerned with public health and welfare as this has occurred numerous times in the past. This Government clearly puts private profit and unrestricted markets ahead of the general welfare of New Zealanders with the resulting burden being placed on our health and welfare systems and even our environment.
The Law Commission provided the Government with a number of recommendations about the sale and advertising of alcohol and the most potentially influential elements were left out of the final bill because of the lobbying of the powerful liquor industry. The Government weakened the work of the Problem Gambling Foundation in their deal with Sky City and even tried to shut down the Foundation's work by shifting their funding to the Salvation Army. Labour's Emission Trading Scheme (while not the Green Party's preferred way of managing emissions) actually had a substantial positive impact in its first year of operation, but since National watered it down our emissions have actually increased by 13%. Watering down the effectiveness of important legislation is what this Government does well.
The costs of child obesity to this country will be substantial if we don't intervene in an effective way. Already New Zealanders have obesity levels that make us the third "fattest" country in the world. Almost a third of all New Zealanders are grossly overweight (the definition of obesity) and another 35% are overweight. 1 in 10 of our children are obese and 35% are overweight, meaning that 45% of our children have weight issues and this must have an effect on their general health and ability to participate in physical activities. Issues with weight also impacts on a child's self image and academic engagement.
In his well researched book Stuffed and Starved Raj Patal explains how the commercialisation of the food industry has corrupted the food supply to the extent that human health has become a secondary factor to profit. Cheaply produced processed food and fast food is promoted more heavily in poorer communities around the world and heavily targeted advertising captures children into lifelong addictions to high sugar and artificially flavoured foods. Unregulated food markets have not caused positive outcomes in poor communities and healthy, natural food is now substantially more accessible to the wealthy. As one example, milk is much more expensive in New Zealand than in the UK, Australia, the US and Canada because of the industry monopoly here and a profit driven market culture.
The Government removed the healthy food guideline for schools that dictated that food provided in schools should be healthy. It seemed ludicrous at the time that teachers were expected to teach and promote healthy eating then schools do not have to practice what is preached. The photographs that compare the lunches of children from a high decile school and a low decile school reveal much about the potential effectiveness of education alone and the impacts of poverty when it comes to food choices.
The Government's decision not to intervene in the advertising and sales of unhealthy food to children is essentially pandering to those who profit from producing and promoting highly processed food that has little nutritional value. The Government has decided on an appallingly insensitive strategy of identifying and labeling overweight children as if calling children fat is going to solve the problem. It ignores the fact that what causes children to be overweight could easily be targeted instead rather than naming and shaming. While the private sector will continue to enjoy few market restrictions the public sector and Government coffers will have to deal with the health and self-esteem consequences
Type 2 Diabetes is reaching epidemic proportions and will dominate the work of our health sector at a time when it can barely afford to maintain current services. As of December last year over a quarter of a million New Zealanders were diagnosed with diabetes and thousands more will probably had it but didn't realise. The annual cost to our health system in treating Type 2 Diabetes had increased from $247 million to $600 million in 2008 and is likely to be well over a billion dollars now. No wonder any increases in health funding is being absorbed with little improvements to overall services.
In his valedictory speech Russel Norman said "...a Government can't do everything that's true. A Government can't mend a broken heart but the Government can fill an empty stomach - that is within our capacity." It is also within our capacity to make sure that we fill that hungry stomach with healthy food.
The profits of the already rich are strongly protected through this Government's watering down of important legislation and the wealth of the country continues to trickle upwards.