More than 4000 obese 4-year-olds a year are expected to be referred to experts in healthy eating and physical activity under a new Government plan to tackle obesity.
Health Minister Jonathan Coleman today announced the plan, which, as foreshadowed in the Herald in February, will make childhood obesity one of his Health Targets.
The Health Targets, although controversial, have succeeded in making the health sector do what health ministers want, such as helping more smokers to quit and reducing delays in emergency departments.
Other highlights of the plan are that:
• The Advertising Standards Authority will review the code of advertising food to children. The Government acknowledges that children's food choices are "strongly influenced by advertising".
• Government negotiators are discussing with food and drink industry leaders the possibility of voluntary industry pledges and changes to food labelling, marketing and advertising to children.
• The Education Review Office, which monitors schools and early childhood centres, will do a special review of nutrition, physical activity and health.
• A national media campaign will focus on childhood obesity.
• Children will be given more opportunities to be physically active.
There is no mention of the Mexico-style soft-drink or sugar taxes promoted by a number of public health specialists and the Green Party but repeatedly rejected by the food industry and Dr Coleman.
Thirty per cent of adults and 10 per cent of children are obese, although the rates are skewed by ethnicity. Pacific people have the highest rate among adults, at 67 per cent. New Zealand has the third highest rate of adult obesity of developed countries.
"Childhood obesity is a serious issue which means some of our kids could end up living shorter lives than their parents," Dr Coleman said.
"Being overweight or obese is expected to overtake tobacco as the leading preventable risk to health in New Zealand within the next 12 months.
"There is no single solution that will fix obesity. That's why we have developed a range of interventions across Government, the private sector, communities, schools and families.
"The Childhood Obesity Plan includes improved public information and resources; increasing physical activity, some of which will be done in education settings; actions for the health sector, and the food and beverage industry.
"Our plan focuses on children as that's where the evidence shows we can have the greatest influence. By focusing on children we expect to also influence the whole family."
The child obesity health target is at the heart of the plan and will join the Minister's other Health Targets next July, through the "B4 School Check", the health check done, at no charge, among 4-year-olds.
The target will be for 95 per cent of children identified as obese to be referred to an appropriate health practitioner for assessment and family-based nutrition, activity and lifestyle interventions.
More than 58,000 children have participated in the B4 School Check in the last year, of whom 1400 were referred for obesity-related support.
"With this target we expect that will treble to over 4000 a year by December 2017," Dr Coleman said.
Children referred via the B4 School Checks will have improved access to nutrition and activity programmes such as Active Families, an existing no-charge community programme run for children and their families who can join on approval from a GP, the Ministry of Health said.