NZ Food & Grocery Council, Taxpayers' Union cheer obesity package

The food industry had argued against any sort of levy on foods high in sugar, fat or salt.

See also: Coca-Cola says 'no single fix for obesity', praises Coleman's fat-fighting plan

The Food and Grocery Council and the Taxpayers' Union have welcomed the government's announcement of 22 initiatives aimed at tackling obesity in young people, which focuses on education, health checks and physical activity, rather than taxing unhealthy foods.

The food industry had argued against any sort of levy on foods high in sugar, fat or salt. Instead it helped develop a "health star rating" similar to the energy efficiency rating scheme for home appliances, while Frucor and Coca-Cola Amatil voluntarily agreed in 2009 not to sell 'energy' drinks and sugar-sweetened soft drinks in schools, a move they say was thwarted by schools buying the drinks from third parties. Industry also has voluntary codes for targeting children in advertising.

"I commend the government for engaging with industry on the issue," said Food and Grocery Council chief executive Katherine Rich. "This is a pragmatic approach to a concerning problem."

The Taxpayers' Union welcomed the news that the government won't introduce a tax on soda drinks or sugar, saying health researchers at Auckland and Otago Universities had relied on misleading data from Mexico in claiming that a tax on sugary drinks would be effective.

"We're all for measures such as the ones announced today to curb obesity," said Taxpayers' Union executive director Jordan Williams. "What we're against is measures that raise revenue for politicians and public health campaigners, cost the poor, and do little if anything to curb the problems with those over-consuming."

The one place where sugary drinks will be restricted in the public sector is in public health facilities. From October 1, all district health boards made a commitment to remove sugar-sweetened beverages from their campuses.

The government has largely accepted voluntary measures offered up by industry, including reducing sugar, fat and salt in some products, changing packaging sizes, and corporate sponsorship of healthy eating and physical activity campaigns.

The Advertising Standards Authority, an industry body, is to conduct a review of the Code for Advertising to Children and the Children's Code for Advertising Food. There is also reference in Health Minister Jonathan Coleman's announcement to the government working "in partnership" with industry and talks on "the possibility of voluntary industry pledges, and changes to food labelling, marketing and advertising to children."

Under the measures announced by Dr Coleman, childhood obesity is being added to the government's health targets programme starting on July 1, 2016.

"There is no single solution that will fix obesity," Dr Coleman said. "That's why we have  developed a range of interventions across government, the private sector, communities, schools and families."

The goal is that by December 2017, 95% of children identified as obese in the B4 school check programme for four-year-olds "will be referred to an appropriate health professional for clinical assessment and family-based nutrition, activity and lifestyle interventions."

Sport NZ will lead a push for more sport opportunities for young people in communities where participation rates are low, such as Indians and Samoans. There will also be increased guidance on health weight gains in pregnancy and a 'green prescription' plan where health professionals provide written advice on activity and nutrition during pregnancy.

There is to be a public awareness campaign about childhood obesity and new guidelines from the Ministry of Health and Health Promotion Agency on nutrition and physical activity "to help people make better choices about food and physical activity." Several of the initiatives are aimed at boosting participation in sports, and more focus will be put on giving teachers the skills to teach about health and physical education.

Starting in term four this year, the Education Review Office is to undertake a review of how early learning and schools' curriculum promotes positive attitudes about health, physical activity and nutrition.

"Being overweight or obese is expected to overtake tobacco as the leading preventable risk to health in New Zealand within the next 12 months," Dr Coleman said.