9 Aug 2013

Obesity on track to be main health risk

10:21 am on 9 August 2013

Obesity looks likely to surpass smoking as the main risk factor for death and disease in New Zealand within three years. A Health Ministry study says it's on track to happen by 2016.

A professor of medicine and human nutrition at Otago University, Jim Mann, says this country has an obesity epidemic and the Government needs to do more to address it, because it has the most horrific consequences.

"Obesity is a prime driver of type 2 diabetes," Professor Mann says, "and it's a major driver of cancer, coronary heart disease and a whole list of other conditions."

Initiatives he would favour include a ban on what he calls junk food advertising, removing junk food from schools and taxing sugary drinks.

The ministry's chief medical officer, Don Mackie, says obesity is a worldwide problem and not easily solved. "It's not only shortening people's lives," he says, "but people (are) suffering illnesses which limit their life through disability of one sort or another."

The less we smoke, the fatter we are

It's not just that obesity is increasing: the rate of smoking has been dropping. Figures show that in 2002, 23% people smoked every day; in 2012, the figure was just 16%.

Dr Mackie says significant progress has been made on reducing smoking, and a smoke-free New Zealand by 2025 is still a key objective.

Otago University epidemiologist Tony Blakely says continuing that campaign is important, "but we need to increasingly pay attention to diet, obesity, overweight and physical activity," not only because of the death rate but because obesity can lead to diseases like arthritis and diabetes.

"These things may not kill you," Professor Blakely says, "but they leave you with a poor quality of life."

The study has also found that Maori have about a 75% higher rate of health problems than non-Maori and that males have a 13% higher rate of health problems than females. Men currently can expect to live 78 years on average; for women, it's 82.