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Health Groups Call For Urgent Action On Prevention

Tobacco, alcohol and unhealthy food cause about one-third of the annual loss of healthy life-years, yet less than 0.5 percent of the health budget is spent on preventing this damage. What’s more, virtually none of the policies for alcohol and unhealthy foods recommended by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and other expert groups have been implemented over the last decade.

Health Coalition Aotearoa (HCA), an alliance of over 40 health and consumer groups, is calling for all political parties to include strong prevention commitments in the lead up to the election. HCA chairperson, Professor Boyd Swinburn, said "New Zealanders have seen, throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, the value of clear Government leadership based on the best available evidence and public health advice. Now it’s time to apply this approach to reducing the huge health damage caused by these harmful products."

Over 300,000 healthy life-years are lost every year from tobacco, alcohol, and ultra-processed foods. Today, the HCA launched its Prevention Brief outlining the top priority recommendations for Government action to reduce this health toll.

Shayne Nahu, HCA Board member and spokesperson for Smokefree Expert Panel, said the next Government needs to implement a comprehensive strategy to bring Aotearoa back on track to meet the Government’s Smokefree 2025 goals. "To achieve this target of less than 5% smoking rates in 5 years, innovative strategies that work, especially for Maori, will be needed. This includes reducing the availability, palatability and addictiveness of cigarettes," said Nahu.

Successive governments have bowed to the lobby pressure from the alcohol industry by not implementing alcohol control recommendations from WHO, the Law Commission and the Mental Health and Addiction Inquiry. The HCA is urging the next government to enact those recommended policies, which include higher taxes, marketing restrictions and reduced community availability. These would reduce the destruction that alcohol causes to families and the wider society, as well as improve people’s health.

Improving children’s diets is the single best way to improve their health and wellbeing. Professor Swinburn said we need to urgently lift our efforts to reduce childhood obesity, which is currently the second worst in the OECD, and improve children’s oral health. Over 8700 children have general anaesthetic operations each year to remove rotten teeth. "The HCA wants a comprehensive food systems and nutrition strategy, which includes bans on marketing junk food to children, healthy food in all schools and early childhood centres, and a UK-style soft drink industry levy," said Swinburn.

The HCA is also calling for a stronger public health investment than the recent Simpson report has recommended. Mr Nahu said, "We need a Maori Health Authority that has actual authority, not just providing advice, to reduce the huge health inequities that continue to destroy whanau and communities. More than 80% of our population’s health status is determined by factors which lie outside the health care system, such as housing, transport, food, and work conditions, so policies in these areas need to also support health."

The HCA wants investment in public health prevention services to be lifted from the current 2-3% of the health budget to 5% by 2023 and the State Services Commission to create commercial conflicts of interest guidance for ministries to prevent the continued derailing of public health policies by vested interests. This will encourage Government to put people before profits.

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