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New Zealand’s biggest city still weighed down by obesity

Obesity rates have tripled in the space of just one generation and it’s been estimated that nationally, two million Kiwis will be obese by 2030.

Aucklanders are still being weighed down by the obesity epidemic and our neighbourhoods are a key ingredient fuelling the problem.

That’s according to the fourth annual Healthy Auckland Scorecard, a report on the population’s obesity, physical activity and nutrition released today by the Healthy Auckland Together (HAT) coalition.

Public Health Medicine Specialist Dr Michael Hale says more than a third (30.4%) of Auckland adults are now obese compared with just ten percent in 1977. "That means our obesity rate has tripled in the space of just one generation," Dr Hale says. "And by 2030, it’s been estimated that two million of us in New Zealand will be obese.

"This isn’t a new problem. It’s bad and we know it’s bad, but it’s not going away because we’re living in an environment that sets us up to fail," says Dr Hale. "Fast food ‘meal deals’, $2.50 pie-and-drink combos at dairies, three-for-one chocolate bars at petrol stations, an abundance of processed foods at the supermarket…we’re assaulted by cheap junk food and its promotion. Healthy food just can’t compete, especially if you’re a low income family."

The Healthy Auckland Scorecard reports that only 34 percent of adults eat enough fruit and vegetables, and less than half do enough physical activity.

The picture is similar for children, with 15 percent of Auckland children experiencing obesity. That figure rises to 22 percent for children living in South Auckland, where just 58 percent of children are a normal body weight.

"It’s no accident that South Auckland also has among the highest density of fast food and takeaway outlets in Auckland," Dr Hale says. "Our children are growing up in a high fat, high salt, high sugar world where they’re exposed to around 27 junk food promotions every day, and they think that’s normal."

Dr Hale says an overhaul of the Advertising Standards Authority, and the Children and Young people’s Advertising Code, is one of the urgent actions needed to help improve the food environment for children.

"Right now, there is no law to prevent junk food advertising to children. Food marketing is self-regulated by the industry and loopholes in the Code leave our children vulnerable," he says. "That has to change.

"We’re calling for government regulation or, at the least, co-regulation with industry, a restriction on junk food television advertising between 5pm and 9pm, an end to unhealthy food and drink sponsorship in children’s sports, and a financial penalty or other sanction when complaints about ads are upheld.

"We also want the Code to define ‘children’ as being aged up to 18 years, rather than 14, and to recognise that they can be exposed to multiple examples of a campaign across many platforms."

Such changes would be in keeping with the World Health Organization’s Commission on Ending Childhood Obesity, which found the food industry can play a significant role in lowering childhood obesity rates by reducing the fat, sugar and salt content of foods, practising responsible marketing, and making nutritious food choices readily available and affordable.

These changes would impact children’s health in other ways too.

The Healthy Auckland Scorecard reports that children living with obesity are also 30 percent more likely to have the worst grade of dental decay, and those living in poorer neighbourhoods are ten times as likely to have the worst grade of decay as those living in wealthier suburbs.

"We must reduce our exposure to unhealthy food and drink marketing if we are going to reduce adult and childhood obesity, and improve dental and overall health."

But one sector of the population bucking the negative trend is preschool children, where obesity rates continue to decline, including an impressive 11 percent drop for Pacific four-year-olds and nine percent for Māori four-year-olds.

"This is really positive and may reflect the work being done in early learning services to provide healthy, nourishing food for pre-schoolers. It shows that change is possible. What’s less positive is that the trend isn’t sustained as the children head to school, gain independence and grow into adulthood."

In other findings, the Healthy Auckland Scorecard reports that Aucklanders’ are now spending 267 sedentary hours annually in their vehicles, with just 20 hours spent on public transport and a combined 34 hours spent cycling or walking.

There are also fewer children using active transport such as bikes and scooters to get to school, down to 45 percent from 49 percent in 2011, with a marked drop across central Auckland from 42 percent in 2014/15 to less than 30 percent in 2016/17.

Dr Hale says it’s this combination of reduced activity levels - a result of the jobs we do and the way we commute - plus the energy-dense food environment that’s undermining Aucklanders’ health and wellbeing.

"Obesity has now surpassed smoking as the greatest risk driving death and disability in New Zealand," he says. "We’re already paying the price, and the cost is going to keep going up."

The Healthy Auckland Scorecard is available in full here, or view the key findings in infographic format here.

About Healthy Auckland Together

Healthy Auckland Together is a coalition which includes Auckland Regional Public Health Service, Auckland Council, Auckland Transport, New Zealand Transport Authority, the Ministry of Health, the three District Health Boards, the Heart Foundation, Hapai Te Hauora, Toi Tangata, Aktive - Auckland Sport & Recreation, University of Auckland’s School of Population Health, Iwi, Healthy Families Waitākere, Healthy Families South Auckland, primary health organisations and other NGO and consumer groups.

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