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Health Groups Boycott “Rigged” Obesity Symposium

Health Groups Boycott “Rigged” Childhood Obesity Symposium

A symposium to be held at the Beehive tomorrow is being boycotted by a number of high profile health groups including the Cancer Society, Diabetes NZ, the Heart Foundation, Fight the Obesity Epidemic (FOE) and the Obesity Action Coalition.

The symposium, “Obesity and Children, Possible Causes, Possible Solutions and the Role of Advertising”, is being funded by the Advertising Standards Authority, whose members come from the advertising industry and organisations that gain revenue through advertising.

The groups say the symposium, to be hosted by Associate Health Minister Damien O’Conner, is a sham, and little more than a public relations exercise by the advertising industry to protect their revenue.

“Its objectives are pre-determined, money-driven and anti-health,” says Cancer Society medical director Dr Peter Dady. Dr Dady says the groups would support a discussion on childhood obesity – causes and possible solutions - that covered all significant epidemiological factors.

Professor Jim Mann, Head of Nutrition at the University of Otago, believes the symposium has little credibility. “There are many experienced researchers in this area in New Zealand, none of whom appear on this programme,” says Professor Mann.

The Obesity Action Coalition is shocked at the blatant industry bias. “It’s not intended to be a debate and exchange of opinions about ways to stem the frightening growth in obesity in children. The ASA has publicly made its opinions quite clear. They are not interested in children’s health; they are driven by commercial motives,” says Carolyn Watts, spokesperson for the Obesity Action Coalition.

Heart Foundation Medical Director, Dr Diana North is also disappointed at the industry’s approach. “The polarisation that has resulted from the lack of process is regrettable. There is certainly a need for constructive debate on this issue, but this needs to be within an independent transparent framework that allows both parties to express their views,” she says.

A number of speakers on the draft programme have withdrawn including Dr Nick Wilson, Public Health Physician, diabetologist and spokesperson for FOE Dr Robyn Toomath, and Heart Foundation Medical Director, Dr Diana North.

“This symposium has clearly been organised so the advertising industry can attack public health legislation which may affect their clients. The ASA has publicly referred to a proposed ban on fast-food commercials during television watched by children as ‘idiotic and unworkable’,” Dr Toomath says.

The International Obesity Taskforce regional co-ordinator Asia Pacific Dr Tim Gill has communicated his organisation’s support. “It does not surprise me that the advertising industry has conned the deputy Health Minister into hosting a forum in which it has set the agenda and invited its selected speakers. This is a common industry ploy.”

The health groups boycotting the symposium also have the support UNICEF, the Public Health Association and Action for Children and Youth Aotearoa.

“The ASA is bringing out American author Jack Calfee as its so-called expert, Dr Peter Dady says. “Calfee believes that advertising lacks the power of persuasion because consumers understand its purpose, therefore there is no point in banning it.”

Dr Dady points out that in the late 1980s, Jack Calfee worked with the tobacco industry using the same dubious arguments to try to avert bans on tobacco advertising.

“If advertising is not a major influence, why do food and advertising industries get so upset at suggestions to ban it?”

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