Corporates at the heart of obesity epidemic

The worst thing I’ve eaten would have to be a “double happy”. I bought it at a school tuckshop for a dollar.

It looked like a large sausage roll but that’s where the resemblance ended. It had some traces of meat but was mostly a pile of breadcrumbs soaked in fat and covered in pastry. It hit my stomach like a dead weight and stayed there like a leaden lump for several hours.

Students bought them because they were cheap and filling unlike the salad rolls with fresh lettuce, carrot and cucumber which were twice the price and left them still hungry. Even more than taste, the price and how well it fills you are key elements of food choice for kids.

So while in the classroom we taught the healthy food pyramid with fats, oils, salt and sweets in a small place at the top and bread, fruit and vegetables at the bottom, out in the tuckshop and in their real world the pyramid was inverted.

This was a school in a low income community where “double happies” and the like are at the heart of daily diets and the obesity epidemic. Choice of food is a wonderful thing but as with choice anywhere it is constrained by income.

Last week yet another Ministry of Health food survey revealed just how distorted our food intake has become. The figures showed that families spend more on sweets each week than on fresh fruit while close to ten times more is spent advertising fast foods than advertising fresh produce. In fact a total of $124 million is now spent each year advertising sweets, chocolate, fizzy drinks, fast-foods and eating out compared to a paltry $6.2 million on fruit and vegetables. With these figures should we be surprised at the obesity epidemic? 

There has been lots of hand wringing at the Ministry of Health but little effective leadership from the government. Reports are piling up on reports, summaries and briefings. It’s a big issue and the government knows it needs to be seen to be doing something but so far it’s more like the bumper sticker “Jesus is coming – look busy”.

Overall the government focus seems to be on changing dietary patterns at the bottom of the cliff although the Ministry has announced it is considering putting restrictions on the food in vending machines in workplaces. However if this is the best idea to emerge so far we are heading up the creek without a paddle. We are all resentful at having choices forced onto us but families and kids are quite capable of making good decisions about what they eat if the right environment is in place.

How about these three simple steps that would have some bite and would begin to tackle the problem at its source? Firstly remove GST on fresh fruit and vegetables. Secondly ban the advertising of fast-foods and fizzy drink on television before 8.30pm and thirdly introduce a 10% tax on fast-foods.

The first would significantly reduce the cost of fruit and vegetables for families and make them a more accessible choice for those who need it most while the other steps would start to put legitimate and reasonable restrictions on the activities of the fast-food chains which are the main drivers of the epidemic.

These companies rely on the “nagging effect” whereby advertising to children results in pressure on parents to patronise fast-food outlets. We are the victims of sophisticated advertising agencies which cynically manipulate the young on behalf of their profit-hungry fast-food clients.

Like the cigarette companies before them, they know to catch children when they are young as the best way to hook them for life.

But while the profits are large, so too are the losses to the community in the enormous cost of obesity-related illnesses such as diabetes and heart disease. However facing up to the real long-term cost is unattractive to governments which work on three-year election cycles. Minister of Health Pete Hodgson will be long-gone by the time we have half the population wanting heart bypass operations and/or treatment for diabetes.

Such steps as I’ve suggested to free New Zealanders to make good food choices would also be vigorously opposed by powerful lobby groups.

Businesses would rail against new taxes which they say will “distort the market”. Fast-food companies will cry foul and armies of well-paid lobbyists in suits will descend on parliament to stifle effective government action.

The difficulty is not in finding effective steps to take but in finding the courage to take them. At the moment the government would prefer to spend tens of millions on ineffective strategies at the bottom of the cliff rather than confronting the business behemoths at the source of the problem.