Dear Kiwi parents,
It is now two years into this Government's term and, disappointingly, we have seen no prevention policies to make the food environment healthier.
I know you have to navigate through piles of junk food every day in schools, supermarket checkouts, dairies, shopping centres and lines of takeaway outlets. Often this is with kids in tow, whose pester power has been fuelled by the targeted junk food ads they see.
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Well, the Government recently had a couple of big chances to help you but unfortunately they gave in, yet again, to the junk food industry lobby.
You know, they know, everyone knows this swamp of junk food is driving obesity, mental health problems and tooth decay. Experts have been putting the evidence and the proven policies from other countries in front of them for years, but they always seem too afraid to go against the big junk food industry.
Have you seen the Health Star Ratings symbol on food packaging? You may not have because, after five years of implementation, companies have only put it on less than a quarter of their products - and usually only on their healthier ones.
The stars are supposed to guide you towards healthier choices and there has just been a big review of the scheme. Nutrition experts, health groups, consumer groups, and doctors all called for the stars to be mandatory because the industry was dragging its heels. Unfortunately, New Zealand and Australian health ministers decided to again back the junk food industry, rather than you as parents and consumers, and let it continue as a third rate, voluntary scheme. I thought the decision was really wimpy.
Straight after this, our ministers for health and primary industries, David Clark and Damien O'Connor, presented their response to a report from the food industry on its commitments to create healthier food environments. They had asked the industry to write this report which was submitted before Christmas last year.
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Ministers sat on the report for 11 months - a very long time in a three-year political cycle. For a Government with a commitment to make New Zealand the best place in the world for your children to grow up in, you'd think they might want to help prevent them becoming fat, sad, and toothless.
I thought the industry report was waffle and the Government's response poured some sugary syrup over it.
Of the 51 recommendations that the industry made, 35 were just "smoke and mirrors" – business-as-usual activities, distracting issues or potentially harmful actions. When I say potentially harmful, I mean the junk food industry wants to be your children's nutrition educators. Already, the industry says, they reach 900,000 people each year with their school and community-based education. I don't know about you, but I find this scary.
The Government's lack of support for nutrition education has indeed created a real vacuum, but, as the industry report admits, the schools are now drowning in industry-fed nutrition resources and programmes. I am sure some of them have worthwhile bits, but surely the Government should step up to its responsibilities and displace the industry-run nutrition education for your kids.
I won't go into detail about what the Government's response to the report was because there wasn't much. The ministers basically said: "Thank you very much for your great work and you might want to review and prioritise 14 of your 51 recommendations. We will set up a committee to keep talking with you." Very meek after 11 months, with no plans for real policy action.
You are probably feeling as disappointed as I am, but we have to keep fighting for better health for our kids. I chair a new alliance called the Health Coalition Aotearoa - a group of health organisations, researchers and professionals who are trying to support Government action to reduce the harm from junk food, alcohol and tobacco which, by the way, create about a third of the death and disease in New Zealand.
It really is a tough job, and we need your support to create the demand for prevention as a priority for the rest of this Government's term and for the election next year. I hope you can join us in calling for this prevention agenda so that Kiwi kids have a healthy future to look forward to.
Professor Boyd Swinburn
Chair, Health Coalition Aotearoa