The toll of sugary drinks on the health of Pacific Island people is an issue close to the heart of 23-year-old Paul Nai.

It's a problem the University of Auckland student has devoted his studies to - and one that worsened the health of an uncle who died last year.

As part of a scholarship awarded to high-performing students, Nai is investigating something he grew up with in Auckland: the cultural factors behind Pacific Islanders' disproportionate consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages.

Pacific nations and territories have some of the highest rates of obesity and diabetes in the world - and research has demonstrated a strong link with sugary drinks.


Nai was concerned that, as an ethnic group, Pacific Islanders remained the biggest consumers of sugary drinks in New Zealand.

The 2008/2009 New Zealand Adult Nutrition Survey had suggested Pacific people living in this country were much more likely to consume soft drinks and energy drinks than other ethnic groups.

The Youth 2007 study also alarmingly found 49 per cent of Pacific youth consumed four or more soft drinks per week, compared with 39 per cent of Maori and 23 per cent of New Zealand Europeans.

"It was also one of the major reasons my uncle got diabetes and he passed away last year, so that really pushed me to pay attention to this area."

The Pacific community needed to realise the negative health implications of the over-consumption of sugary drinks - something Nai said was clearly driven by market factors such as price, availability and advertising, but also cultural factors.

"I'm not setting out to blame anyone or group for the state of [sugary drink] consumption of Pacific Islanders, rather it is an opportunity to help understand their consumption behaviours."

For instance, he said, Pacific Islanders were more likely to consume soft drinks without purchasing them because of their availability in Pacific cultural practices, such as feasting on special occasions.

Nai, who is of Tongan descent, said he'd observed this often during his own family gatherings.


He has already completed a dissertation as part of a Bachelor of Commerce (Honours) Degree in Marketing, focused on the same issue, and would use his scholarship to author a paper based on his final year thesis.

Once complete, the work could be used by groups trying to improve the health of Pacific communities, he said.

"Ultimately, I'd like to be involved in public health, rather than get into the commercial realm, just so I can work with people and society."