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The winter of our discontent

It's going to be a long winter, given my general feeling of angry impotence in relation to what's going on in New Zealand. Just one example: last week the front page of the DomPost featured a photo of a young child's teeth savagely eroded by sugary drink.

The accompanying story detailed the extraordinary damage these drinks are doing, resulting not only in bad health but also in extremely costly hospital care. Rob Beaglehole, principal dental officer for Nelson Marlborough District Health Board, faced with the huge increase in such cases, said that junk food advertising has "huge sway over children's diet":

"Our kids are watching their sporting heroes slugging back bottles of sports drinks containing three days' worth of a child's daily recommended amount of sugar. If we want to protect our kids and address this health crisis, the first step needs to be restricting advertising of junk food directly to our children."

 Carrick Graham (if you don't know who he is, read Dirty Politicsand the Metro article mentioned below) had the gall to comment, "What do you say to the parents of the babies that you have to extract teeth from? Why aren't they held responsible?" Beaglehole replied, "I say to the parents please don't give your child any more sugary drinks. They say 'but the All Blacks drink them...'"  (Just like runner John Walker for FreshUp - "It's got to be good for you".)

Taxes are another effective way to cut consumption. Yet earlier this month, Health Minister Jonathan Coleman ruled out taxing sugar-laden products, saying exercise and education should be the focus in efforts to reduce obesity. He now says that over the next two months, he plans to recommend "a set of actions to address the nation's sugar problem".

Beaglehole said the minister should look to introduce measures to tackle the marketing of sugary drinks and junk food, in the same way tobacco and alcohol were treated.Yet so far the government has adamantly refused even to consider any such measures. (They've also refused to take effective steps on the price and availability of alcohol.)

On the second page there was an article about Labour's data on the steady decline in health funding in real terms, amounting to a cut of $1.7 billion since 2010. In response, Jonathan Coleman said - this deserves bold type:

"We want to move funding away from expensive hospitals and into communities so we have early intervention, we have preventative measures so we keep people out of hospitals, and prevent them from getting really unwell in the first place."

 If that's so, Minister, why not start with taking the steps all the experts are calling for to prevent further expensive damage to children's teeth?  And why all the stalling over an even bigger and more expensive cause of ill-health in children - cold, damp, rotten rental housing? 

We've heard the awful reports on killer state houses, but private ones are even worse. As Rebecca Macfie's recent Listener article makes clear, people rent these houses not because they don't think damp matters (they do), or because these houses are cheap (they aren't), but because they have no choice - they must have somewhere to live and they have to take whatever they can find. The government pays accommodation supplements for 60% of rental housing, so it's directly subsidising hundreds of landlords providing dangerously bad housing.

Every day, there's clear new evidence that the current government is much more concerned with not upsetting its big business supporters than with minor issues like children's health. As Professor Doug Sellman, head of the National Addiction Centre, said in a recent article in Metro:

"Current economic models are not sufficiently accounting for the harm to ordinary people from certain big businesses – ‘addictionogenic’ big businesses... They’re headed up by people who hide behind the mantra we so often hear: ‘It’s all about individual responsibility.

However, they know very well how risky their products are to ordinary people, how much harm is being caused, and how deviously clever their marketing and government lobbying is to maintain their grip on the New Zealand population and their profit flow." (To see what he's talking about, go and see "Merchants of Doubt", showing in the film festival.)

So far it looks very much as if, despite the best efforts of the best qualified people, children will go on suffering and this government will go on letting them suffer, for the sake of protecting profits.  Yes, it's going to be a long winter.

This post first appeared on Anne Else's blog, Elsewoman, on 2 August 2015 and has been reprinted here with her kind permission.