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Damien O’Connor Speech: Obesity and children ?

Damien O’Connor Speech: Obesity and children ? Possible Causes, Possible Solutions

Good morning ladies and gentlemen. Welcome to this symposium on obesity and children. As a Minister I am pleased to welcome you here to Parliament. Given the issue we're discussing it would be more appropriate to be holding this forum in the gymnasium rather than the Banquet Hall.

There has been some comment about who is here today and who is not. I want to say on the record that I am disappointed that some important health organisations have chosen not to attend. Their contribution to this challenging issue is essential.

I was surprised and disappointed, however, to read the reported comments that referred to these health groups as ideologues who supported "idiotic and unworkable" proposals. Perhaps its little wonder it made promotion of a balanced forum today somewhat optimistic.

But let's put all that aside. I think it is essential to state emphatically that this forum will not be the last word on the problems of child obesity.

The focus of today is on:

q The issue q The causes ? and there are many and; q Most importantly ? the possible solutions.

What's at the heart of this issue? Well it's about food and exercise, the fundamental components of our lives.

Our relationship with food, whether as individuals or societies is both simple and complicated.

Simple, because without food we die, but complicated because of the social and emotional associations bound up with food and the act of eating. We know today that not only is food necessary for life, it can sometimes also shorten it and indeed cause a frightening range of illnesses and disabilities.

As individuals, our relationship with food begins from day one. Very early, food comes to mean warmth, love, nurturing, family life and getting together with friends. It is an essential element of the rituals, and collective celebrations of every society on the planet.

Now, of course, society has changed. We know how to produce food that is nutritious, tasty, and enough for everyone, if the international community chose to distribute it properly. We no longer have to expend much physical energy to obtain it. Our jobs are different, there are hundreds of labour saving devices, and many of us tend to lead fairly sedentary lifestyles.

For the average person, it is difficult to match our food intake with the needs of our physical activity

What remains the same is our enjoyment of food that is readily available and often high in energy. We like sharing food with friends and family to show our generosity and welcome. These are linkages that bind society together.

The reality is that many of us eat too much. That's bad enough for adults, but for the first time, overweight children are becoming more commonplace. While there is currently no national data on rates of obesity in New Zealand children, a study of over 2000 Auckland schoolchildren aged 5 to 11 years found over 14% were obese. This is consistent with overseas trends.

For an overweight child, life can be cruel. No one wants to be stigmatized, and being scorned by your peers is worst at the vulnerable stage of childhood or adolescence.

>From a health viewpoint there are huge consequences for obese children. There seems to be good evidence that the eating habits of children have a potential lifelong effect on cholesterol levels and later on coronary heart disease risk. Its just commonsense not rocket science.

Increasingly, we are seeing obese children and adolescents with type 2 diabetes. This is a disease that until recently rarely manifested itself until mid or late adulthood.

And while being overweight is no fun for a child, for an adult it can be lethal.

As we all are aware, obesity has serious health implications. It is a major risk factor for type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, hypertension, osteoarthritis, and some cancers.

Prevalence of obesity increased by 55% over an 8-year period in NZ. 35 percent are overweight and another 17 percent of NZ adults are obese. That figure could rise to nearly 30 percent of adults in New Zealand if we don't do something about the problem.

The trends are frightening and are now global. On Monday the World Health Organisation issued a landmark report on diet and chronic diseases. The report, produced by a team of international experts, showed that the burden of chronic diseases ? including cardiovascular disease, diabetes and obesity ? is increasing worldwide ? and not only in richer countries. According to the report, the key to reducing rates of deaths and disability from chronic diseases is to firstly recognize that these diseases are preventable, address the issues and create environments that support health.

How do we do this? We have to think very seriously about what action to take ? and not just think about action, but implement it. As individuals and families we all have to think about looking after our own health and the health of our children, that's clear.

What's equally clear is that it's often very difficult for individuals alone to make healthy choices, to eat small portions, to take advantage of opportunities for physical activity. We get hungry and we get lazy. For most people, values, attitudes, and patterns of behaviour that are formed during childhood and adolescence influence us in our adult lives.

At the same time when we really don't need to eat very much and certainly don't expend the same amount of energy as our forebears, the pressure to eat more is ever increasing.

The facts are that food advertising accounts for 25-40 percent of advertisements during children's viewing times on television. The kinds of food advertised are predominately those high in fat, sugar and salt. Last year more than $52 million was spent in NZ on television advertising for fast foods ? that's a lot of money especially when you compare it to the $650,000 dollars spent on the push/play advertising campaign.

I'm sure that there will be discussion today about the effects of advertising, information campaigns, education and so on. That will be useful. There's clearly going to be a range of views, so I want to emphasise what is most important and what should be kept at the forefront of our minds: the issue itself, and the need for a collective response. We need to all consider what we can and should do, and we need to recognize that action will be needed on a long-term basis by all parties.

Obesity is now classified as a disease by the World Health Organization. It is a serious health issue, on a par with tobacco. It deserves the same level of societal response ? perhaps even greater. We don't want to wait 40 years or so before getting round to some meaningful action, as happened with tobacco.

This government is demonstrating its commitment to action on this issue in a number of ways. The Healthy Eating ? Healthy Action Strategic Framework is to be launched tomorrow by Annette King. This strategy takes a population health approach to the problem of obesity, nutrition and physical activity. Working with children, young people and their families is a good place to start. I hope that you consider these priorities in your discussions today.

The Government has also funded a National Children's Nutrition Survey. This is the first such survey in New Zealand, and will provide data later this year on a range of measures including children's eating habits and physical activity.

The discussion paper on Public Health Legislation: promoting public health, preventing ill health and managing communicable diseases, released by the Ministry of Health last November also asks questions about the role of law in relation to such diseases as diabetes, cancers, and cardiovascular disease. It's useful ? indeed essential ? given the seriousness of the issues to ask these questions. A Public Health Bill of today would be very strange, if not actually negligent, if it overlooked the major causes of ill health and death in our society and child obesity is one such cause.

Finally, I can affirm three things from this government.

First is that absolutely no decisions have been made on any of the suggestions made in the discussion paper relating to options for responding to non-communicable diseases. Submissions on the discussion paper close at the end of this month, and no decisions will be made until those submissions have been analysed and Government has had a chance to consider their implications. The government looks forward to your submissions for proper consideration.

Second, inaction on obesity is not an option. We've gone past that.

Finally, we want and need innovative and creative thinking on these issues. Original ideas may offer potential for doing something effective to protect child health and the health of all New Zealanders. Let's put all those ideas on the table.

Food is the sustenance of life. That must be our highest priority. In this room are some of the most creative and innovative minds in New Zealand. We all have a responsibility to use those talents to protect the health of our children and every New Zealander into the future.

Thank you ladies and gentlemen.

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