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Launch of Tracking the Obesity Epidemic: Speech

Hon. Mita Ririnui
6 December 2004 Speech Notes
Launch of Tracking the Obesity Epidemic:
New Zealand 1977-2003

Venue: Lion Harbourview Lounge, Wellington Convention Centre

Good evening everyone. I am delighted to be here to launch Tracking the Obesity Epidemic, a significant overview of one of New Zealand’s most worrying health problems.

First I want to acknowledge Dr Barry Borman, manager of Public Health Intelligence, and thank you for your warm welcome. I also want to mention other distinguished guests here tonight, particularly Director General of Health Karen Poutasi and Deputy Director General of Public Health Don Matheson.

This report provides sobering evidence of what we in the health sector have suspected for some time: Yes, we are in the midst of an obesity epidemic. Until now, however, we have lacked a detailed description of obesity trends over an extended period of time, so that was the purpose of the present study.

Data from four national health and nutrition surveys was used to describe the epidemic: the 1977 National Diet Survey, 1989 Life In New Zealand Survey, 1997 National Nutrition Survey, and the recent 2002/2003 New Zealand Health Survey. In addition to tracking the prevalence of overweight and obesity, graphical techniques were used to visualise changes in the Body Mass Index distribution.

The results provide a richer and far more comprehensive picture of the ‘obesity epidemic’ than previously available.

Congratulations to the Public Health Intelligence team for producing this impressive report, particularly Martin Tobias, Maria Turley and Sue Paul for your hard work.

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As you can imagine, Tracking the Obesity Epidemic reveals some disturbing trends. It shows that the prevalence of obesity in New Zealand has doubled in the last quarter-century – from approximately 10 percent in 1977 to 21 percent in 2003 in both males and females.

This suggests that the origins of the epidemic precede 1977, yet the epidemic did not really begin to accelerate until the late 1980s or early 1990s. It appears the epidemic began first among middle-aged females. Even today, it remains largely confined to middle-aged groups (especially among males), although some spread into both older and younger age groups has already occurred (especially among females).

For Maori, analyses were limited from 1989 t0 2003 due to insufficient sample size in the 1977 survey. Overall, the prevalence of obesity among Maori adults increased from approximately 20 percent in 1989 to 27 percent in 2003. This increase was proportionally smaller than that seen in the total population over the same period, although the prevalence of obesity remains higher in Maori than in the total population.

This report provides the first indication that while the prevalence of obesity continues to increase at a steady pace, the rate of growth may be slowing among some population groups. However, the possibility that the apparent slowing may be at least partly due to differences and changes in survey design, cannot be excluded. Therefore the BMI data from the next round of health and nutrition surveys, scheduled for 2005–2007, is awaited with keen interest.

But in the meantime, we should still be worried. We know the risk factors of today are the diseases of tomorrow. And, of course, obesity is associated with all major chronic diseases – type 2 diabetes, heart disease, stroke and several common cancers. In a previous study carried out jointly by the Ministry of Health and the University of Auckland, higher than optimal body mass index (BMI, weight adjusted for height) was estimated to contribute to approximately 3200 deaths a year in New Zealand, mostly through type 2 diabetes, heart disease and stroke.

The good news is that obesity has long been recognised by the Ministry of Health as a major public health issue. Reducing obesity, improving nutrition and increasing physical activity are priority objectives in the New Zealand Health Strategy, which was released in December 2000.

Those three objectives have been included in the Healthy Eating – Healthy Action Strategy. This high-level strategy recognises that simply asking people to eat less and exercise more will not work. What we actually need is a multi-sectoral approach to change the environment that currently promotes obesity. As a result, the Ministry of Health has developed the implementation plan for HEHA (Hee-Har) in partnership with other central government agencies, health-related non-government organisations, academia and industry. The next speakers will talk in more detail about HEHA and some exciting initiatives that are already underway.

The HEHA implementation plan is, of course, a positive New Zealand response to the World Health Organisation’s global strategy on diet, physical activity and health, ratified in Geneva this year.

Finally, I believe this report is an excellent resource and those involved should be very proud of it. It is quite possibly the most thorough and comprehensive description of a national obesity epidemic yet produced for any country, and I am sure the WHO will be excited to hear about it.

I look forward to the report being updated in the future, when data from future surveys will hopefully show our initiatives are slowing or, even better, reversing the obesity epidemic. That is the goal we must all pursue.

It now gives me great pleasure to declare Tracking The Obesity Epidemic well and truly launched.


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