Obesity plagues the developed world. In Washington last year I was surrounded by mountains of flesh shuffling towards bus, metro or class, food in one hand, coke in the other, using a foot to push doors open. Signs banning food consumption were ignored. Americans were munching their way through the day, their girths expanding before your eyes. New Zealand seems to be going the same way. We are told one pre-teen in seven is grossly overweight and a candidate for later problems like diabetes, high blood pressure and joint problems. It's clear something needs to be done. The question is what.
Last week the Herald ran three articles on child obesity. Amongst them I noted a discussion paper produced by Ministry of Health officials. Having once been their boss, I read the report with interest. I enjoyed my time with them, learning a lot from some very able people. This time I couldn't believe my eyes. An endocrinologist who is spokeswoman for Fight the Obesity Epidemic was giving vent to more foolishness than I've seen concentrated in one document for years. She wants legislation to cover the content and placement of food advertisements, and authority to ban those she doesn't approve; she wants power to regulate food sold at schools: "what the heck are we doing selling soft drinks, fruit drinks, chips and pies, sweets and chocolates in schools?" she asks rhetorically. Her list of smart solutions to the obesity epidemic? Taxing video and computer games because of their association with sedentary activity; removing Government support from television; promoting exercise by exempting bicycle sales from GST; extending daylight saving to allow more time for physical activity. Oh dear! The disjunction between good intent and likely outcome could not be more scary.
The all-pervasive feature of the doctor's article was the bland assumption that Nanny State, using regulations, can fix whatever ails children. What happened to the notion of parental responsibility? I find that omission disturbing. Are we being told that because so many kids have only one, the State should cover for both parents? Two things I have learned over the years: behavioural change is a complex process and the State cannot substitute for the home environment. Schools can't supervise children outside of hours - that is, the other three quarters of each school day, plus holidays. Surely parents and care-givers are where the dietary message begins?
And what about the endocrinologist's Stalinist edicts? Today's "tuck shops" or "pie shops" she wants to regulate dispense the same stuff they did in my day. But the obesity epidemic is a feature of recent times. Are the pies worse now? Not possible! The drinks more sugary? No. There must be another reason for childhood obesity. Do kids eat more? That's more likely. And the problem can be sheeted home to parents, one or both. They have more money, and probably give too much to their porkers as they push them out of the parental SUV each morning. Our expert says children need more exercise. I'm sure she's right. The practice where parents drive their kids everywhere deprives them of one of the best forms of exercise - walking, or biking, to and from school, or games. Yes, the roads are dangerous, but adapting behaviour to that is part of the educational process. They won't become less dangerous when the kids leave school. Again, it's the parents our doctor ignores. In Auckland there's a growing practice she should explore: "walking school buses" where parents, or people employed for the purpose, walk a group of kids to/from school. Good exercise for everyone, and a chance for extra teaching, too.
But the prize for naivety must go to the suggestion that trimming government support for television will cut obesity by forcing kids to switch off. Nonsense. Unless they have incentives to do other things, they'll only watch worse programmes. As for cutting the GST on bikes, I presume our endocrinologist is too young to remember the debates in 1985-6 over exemptions from GST. Every person and their dog had a "special claim" for exemption. Wisely, the Government accepted none.
But as the last minister to change the daylight saving timetable (1989), I'd concede she has a good point. I should have started it a week earlier in October, and stretched it for three more weeks into early April. We all make mistakes. I hope she reflects on hers. And the Ministry, too, for taking such codswallop seriously.