Politicians under spotlight at panel on tobacco, alcohol, unhealthy food and inequity

A political forum on prevention held this week showed a lot more work is needed to achieve a cross-party commitment on measures to reduce harm from alcohol, tobacco, unhealthy food and inequity.

Dr Ayesaha Verrall (Labour Party), Shane Reti (National Party) and Chloe Swarbrick (Green Party) spoke to over 100 members of the public health sector and media at the panel, organised by Health Coalition Aotearoa (HCA), the Public Health Communications Centre, and the University of Otago, Wellington on Tuesday, August 8.

The politicians responded to HCA’s Prevention Brief for the next government identifying the top priority policies to improve health and equity.

An HCA survey of political parties, showed positions on health were ideologically rather than evidence-based.

“While there was alignment from Labour and the Greens, Labour can certainly go further. National’s position was really disappointing – trotting out the same old solutions and excuses for not taking stronger action,” HCA co-chair Dr Lisa Te Morenga said.

HCA co-chair Professor Boyd Swinburn said while ACT and Te Pati Māori did not attend the panel, both parties completed the survey.

“While Te Pati Māori and the Greens were highly supportive of the HCA recommendations for action, ACT was highly unsupportive across the board. Labour was generally supportive and National was generally unsupportive.”

Minister of Health Dr Ayesha Verrall, Labour Party

 Chloe Swarbrick, The Green Party

Dr Shane Reti, National Party

Following their opening addresses at the forum, Verrall, Reti and Swarbrick took part in a 45-minute Q & A session hosted by Radio New Zealand senior broadcaster and journalist Corin Dann.

Verrall came out swinging against National and ACT party’s plan to disestablish Te Aka Whai Ora – the Māori Health Authority and potentially put parts of the Labour Government’s world-leading smoke-free legislation plan on ice.

She said a “lack of embodiment of te Tiriti o Waitangi in our health system” was the greatest barrier to health in Aotearoa.

“…that’s why I’m so determined to keep fighting for the Māori Health Authority and to reject the little undermining of it that goes on all the time from the opposition.”

Reti had earlier re-iterated National’s plans to disestablish Te Aka Whai Ora if elected to government.

“…I do not believe that centralising authority and decision making to Wellington, and telling people in the north of Hokianga what is best for them is right and correct.”

Verrall hit back, saying Māori-Iwi partnership boards in the regions were integral to the new model.

The Minister strongly defended her Government’s Smoke-free legislation amendments and plans to meet the Smoke-free 2025 goal– a reduction in average smoking rates to five per cent or less.

Pushed to explain National’s commitment to the measures, Reti said the party would prioritise de-nicotinisation first, and review the other measures – including reducing retailers and banning sale of smoked tobacco to those born on or after Jan 1, 2009 (the Smoke-free generation).

Verrall said this amounted to a roll-back on her world-leading legislation.

Reti said denicotisation would achieve about 85 per cent of the reductions required for Smoke-free 2025.

HCA Smoke-free Expert Panel member Catherine Manning who manages a smoking cessation service for Takiri mai te Ata Whanau Ora Collective said she was “extremely disappointed” there was no commitment to address sky-rocketing youth vaping addiction.

Verrall said the issue was challenging but pointed to recent regulations brought in by the Government, including restrictions on flavours sold and a ban on specialist vaping stores within 300 metres of schools and maraes.

Manning said it showed a complete lack of understanding about the severity of the problem.

“To say what they have done is better than nothing is a cop out.”

On regulation of unhealthy food in schools, and marketing of unhealthy food and alcohol, Verrall was not able to comment on Labour’s policy.

Te Morenga said HCA was looking forward to seeing Labour’s prevention manifesto, as the election campaign heats up.

“We are hoping to see strong policy for limiting the unhealthy food advertising that kids are exposed to in the places the live, work and place, and regulations for healthy food and drink provision in all schools.

Health Coalition Aotearoa (HCA) political forum 2023 – from left: Chloe Swarbrick (The Green Party), HCA co-chair Dr Lisa Te Morenga, HCA co-chair Professor Boyd Swinburn, Dr Ayesha Verrall (NZ Labour Party, Dr Shane Reti (New Zealand National Party).

The Labour Government last year committed to a review of alcohol laws, but parked marketing and sponsorship as out of scope.

The Minister acknowledged the many harms caused by alcohol but stopped short of explaining what Labour will do about it.

Reti came under a lot of heat from the audience on National’s solution to alcohol harm – expanding education on responsible drinking, when the evidence showed this was relatively ineffective.

On healthy food, HCA was pleased to hear from that National would continue to fund Ka Ora, Ka Ako – healthy school lunches.

“While we’d like to see it expanded to more kids we’re relieved that it’s not on the chopping block,” Te Moregna said.

Reti said the party would continue the programme at its current size (25 per cent of schools)  – but also wanted to “help parents to parent, so they are better able to provide that sort of requirement of food and nutrition”.

Reti said he found the British government’s sugary drinks levy “kind of interesting” and threw shade on the Health Star Rating system, suggesting it was past it’s use-by date and should be reviewed.

“I’m just not sure that it’s providing the information for people to make informed decisions that we hoped it would.”

On sales of junk food to schools, Reti said that would be a decision for schools, parents and boards of trustees. 

Te Morenga said the National Party position on alcohol and unhealthy food harm was very disappointing.

“It’s so disappointing to hear the industry line being trotted out again, about exercise being the way to limit harms from unhealthy food, rather than going right to the source of the problem.”

Swarbrick said the Greens would make the advertising standards authority children’ and young person’s code mandatory.

On sales of junk food at schools, she said the bigger priority was ensuring better access to healthy food.

Swarbrick said the Green Party was the only party committed to addressing the social determinants of health with policies to reduce poverty, poor housing, and poor access to health services.

“I’m willing to talk about the inherent dignity of people and ensuring everybody has what they need to live a good life let alone to make these apparent .”

An HCA survey of political parties, showed positions on health were ideologically rather than evidence-based.

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