18 Apr 2016

Fat Science: Dr Robyn Toomath

From Nine To Noon, 10:09 am on 18 April 2016

An Auckland diabetes specialist has slammed the government for its lack of action to fight obesity.

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Photo: 123rf.com

Dr Robyn Toomath says the government needs to use fiscal measures to combat obesity, by making healthy food more affordable than unhealthy food.

Dr Toomath started Fight the Obesity Epidemic in 2001 when, as a diabetes specialist, she started seeing teenagers with Type 2 diabetes; it had previously affected mostly only people aged over 40.

She wound up the group in November last year, saying she felt she'd made no progress, but has just published a book called Fat Science: Why Diets and Exercise Don't Work and What Does.

Dr Toomath said there was a period of productive activity to fight obesity that went on for six or seven years, but that ended in 2008.

"Everybody at that stage started began treading water, thinking well you know 'the political climate will change and we'll be able to get going again', but there's a limit to how long you can tread water and just see absolutely nothing changing."

Dr Toomath said obesity was not an issue of personal responsibility but of societal responsibility.

New Zealand is the third most obese nation of the OECD countries, according to official statistics.

Dr Toomath said the continued focus on the individual as being entirely responsible was maddening for her, as she said she saw individuals struggling to do their best - and failing.

"So I've become very annoyed with this intransigent stance that the government [has] taken and I'm just not prepared to keep banging my head against a brick wall."

Dr Robyn Toomath

Dr Robyn Toomath Photo: supplied

Dr Toomath said, during 2006 to 2008, things were very productive, with a health select committee inquiry into obesity and the 'Mission On' health initiative leading to boards of trustees restricting food types in schools. 

She said all those things were bubbling away until a change of government.

"All of the funding for NGOs working in the public health issues stopped. The schools were told that they no longer needed to control the food that was sold."

The National Party adored the phrase 'Nanny State' and made it absolutely explicitly clear that they were not the government that was going to regulate the environment, she said.

Dr Toomath said there had been tremendous lobbying by the food and soft drink industries, where there was a great deal of power.

"I think that's something that is underestimated, when we wonder why we're not getting traction."

She said polls and petitions going back a decade indicated that the general public wanted to reduce the amount of junk food advertising on television and that people wanted a sugar tax.

"So even though there are clear signals by public that we would like these changes brought about, why is [it] that the government is not moving? And I think that they've got very good friends in industry."

Dr Toomath said introducing a sugar tax, reducing junk food advertising and increasing useful food labelling were all a good start but it was important to change the frame of reference to combat obesity.

"You would not have fast food outlets, or perhaps even dairies, adjacent to schools, they would need to be further apart. 

"You would certainly use fiscal measures so that healthy food was more affordable than the unhealthy food... you would restrict the density of junk food outlets - particularly in supermarkets."

Obesity was not an area where you could wait for evidence on measures and then move, she said.

"What is the risk of putting a soft drink tax on? What is the harm - why are we waiting for the evidence?"

Dr Toomath said having milk that was more expensive than soft drinks was a tragedy, and society would bear the costs of obesity for a long time to come.

"But it's like climate change - the longer we dick around not doing anything, the longer this cost is going to keep piling up."