New Zealand's food policies need major improvement in order to see any change to the country's obesity epidemic, a new report says.

The second Auckland University Health Food Environment Policy Index, published today, saw the country score poorly on about half of the food policy indicators used to measure the policy changes needed to tackle the problem.

The 2017 report asked a panel of 71 independent and government public health experts to rate the extent of implementation of Government policies on food environments and infrastructure against international best practice. The first version was published in 2014.

Forty-seven per cent of all the good practice indicators were rated as having "low" or "very little, if any" implementation.

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It was a slight improvement on 2014 when 60 per cent of indicators received one of the bottom two ratings, but there was still a long way to go, said co-author of the report Professor Boyd Swinburn.

"If you look at the outcomes, which are the obesity rates, we're doing very poorly," he said.

New Zealand adults and children had the third highest rate of being overweight or obese within the OECD and Kiwi adults were on track to take out the top spot within three or four years, he said.

In 2015/2016, 32 per cent of adults were obese, up from 27 per cent in 2006/07, and one in nine children aged 2-14 years were obese.

Swinburn said the panel scored food labelling policies well while several other areas improved their scores.

Professor Boyd Swinburn says New Zealand's health food policies need a major change. Photo/File
Professor Boyd Swinburn says New Zealand's health food policies need a major change. Photo/File

Major implementation gaps were identified for healthy food policies in schools, fiscal policies to support healthy food choices, implementing restrictions on unhealthy food marketing to children, supporting communities to limit the density of unhealthy food outlets, supporting the food retail and service industry to reduce unhealthy food practices and ensuring that trade and investment agreements did not negatively affect population health.

The panel made 53 recommendations but identified nine for immediate action.

The top two recommendations were to strengthen the Childhood Obesity Plan and set targets for reducing the number of overweight or obese children from a third to a quarter by 2025, reducing the average intake of salt, sugar and saturated fat and voluntary reformulation of ingredients in key foods.

"There was a pretty strong consensus from around the country that the childhood obesity plan is very weak and needs to be substantially bolstered. We can't be expected to support children with such a weak plan," Swinburn said. "The plan is just a referral of obese kids to primary care."

Swinburn said he believed reducing the childhood obesity rate was do-able if the Government got serious about it and committed to making the changes other countries had already made.

Health Minister Dr Jonathan Coleman agreed obesity was a serious issue which was "threatening the health of young New Zealanders".

"Obesity is particularly concerning in children as it is associated with a wide range of health conditions, it can also affect a child's overall quality of life. There's no single solution that will fix obesity. That's why we've implemented a Childhood Obesity Plan with a range of interventions across Government, the private sector, communities, schools and families. We're now one of the few OECD countries to have a target and comprehensive plan on childhood obesity."

Labour health spokesman David Clark said obesity was a major issue and National's "head in the sand" approach was not good enough.

He said Labour supported having real targets for obesity reduction rather than referral targets and would be held accountable for reaching them.

Labour would support most of the top nine recommendations, he said. They would increase prevention funding, but could not say how much, and would consider a sugar-tax if they could not work with industry to agree on voluntary reductions over time.

Nine recommendations for immediate action

Strengthen the Childhood Obesity Plan: Including policy objectives and targets to reduce obesity prevalence and inequalities, and more and stronger policies to create healthy children's food environments; and increasing funding for the implementation and evaluation of the plan.
Set targets for: reducing childhood overweight and obesity by 8 percentage points (from one-third to one-quarter) by 2025 with decreasing inequalities; reducing mean population intakes of salt, sugar and saturated fat based on World Health Organisation recommendations; and voluntary reformulation of composition (salt, sugar and saturated fat) in key food groups.
Increase funding for population nutrition promotion to at least 10 per cent of obesity/overweight health care costs
Regulate unhealthy food marketing as defined by the WHO nutrition profiling model, to children up to 18 years: in broadcast media, including during children's peak viewing times (up to 9pm); in non-broadcast media, including food packaging, sport sponsorship and social media; and in children's settings, including 'school food zones'.
Ensure healthy food in schools and early childhood education services
Introduce a substantial (eg 20 per cent) tax on sugar-sweetened beverages
Strengthen the Health Star Rating System
Implement the new Eating and Activity Guidelines
Conduct a new national nutrition survey for children