Every time Health Minister Tony Ryall and Education Minister Anne Tolley use the term "nanny state" to justify their new food policies, many public health researchers wince.

They know the two words masterfully tap into the ideology that the state should stay out of matters like food consumption.

So much so that public health workers and researchers have felt virtually powerless to respond.

Until yesterday.

Now they are planning a counterattack against the use of the terms "nanny state", "bureaucracy", "political correctness", "health nazi" and others by politicians and the food, tobacco and alcoholindustries.

Dr George Thomson and colleagues from Otago University at Wellington searched the English language media internationally and their findings included a sharp increase in the use of "nanny state" after 2002.

In relation to obesity, tobacco and alcohol in New Zealand, its use peaked last year at 120 references per 100,000 articles.

Big rises in the use of "nanny state" and "bureaucracy" coincided with the proposal to make bars smoke-free and Parliament's obesity inquiry.

"When industries think their profits are at risk, they negatively frame the efforts of government to protect people from an industry's activities," Dr Thomson said.

"There's a need to reframe public health activity as stewardship that protects people. We need to emphasise the advantages of the strong state, the state that protects," he told the conference. But the public health community, delving into alien territory, acknowledges it needs some help from the country's top advertising brains in coming up with catchy counter-phrases.

Professor Boyd Swinburn, of Deakin University in Melbourne, promotes the term "ninny state", which he picked up from an Australian conference audience.

Dr Thomson said "ninny state" was used to describe some current public health policies that were "stupid, weak and not protecting people".

He also promoted the slogan "end corporate welfare", which he said was a hit at industries that benefited financially from inadequate controls on their products.