The Obesity Epidemic: Towards a Regulatory Framework to Combat Obesity in New Zealand
There is currently a global obesity epidemic and New Zealand, like many other countries, has high levels of obesity both in the adult and child population. This presents a threat to society due to the risk to individual and population health, and the impact on public services. A major contributor to obesity levels is the nature of the current eating environment; one in which various factors make it natural and easy to lead an unhealthy lifestyle. By targeting these, the law could help to combat the obesity epidemic. Historically, attempts to address obesity through legal means have encountered opposition on paternalistic grounds. Given the threat that obesity poses, both to the individual and society as a whole, a certain level of paternalism is justified to control it, particularly when it comes to the protection of children. Currently, legal measures to control obesity can be implemented in New Zealand without resorting to hard paternalism. The law should be used to increase regulation of the food industry, rather than using it to control food intake directly. This is a softer paternalistic approach and includes changes to labelling requirements and the regulation of the marketing to mandate for improved information to be disseminated about food products. It also includes the implementation of a universal nutrient profiling system to overcome any problems associated with deciding which food products should be subject to increased regulation. Change to the eating environment in New Zealand could also be facilitated via the implementation of a fat-tax to address the price inequalities between healthy and unhealthy food products. Currently the food industry in New Zealand is minimally regulated by statute, with an emphasis on food safety and hygiene. This is no longer appropriate given rising levels of obesity. Furthermore, it is no longer appropriate that food product marketing be regulated by the industry, given its contribution to obesity levels, and the obvious conflict of interest. Notwithstanding that obesity control in New Zealand can presently be tackled using such an approach, a higher level of paternalism is necessary for measures aimed at children. Therefore, in the current food environment, paternalistic health laws, designed to protect children, are justified on the basis of the risk to children, and the need to protect them. Additionally, the need for a more paternalistic approach to obesity control generally must be kept under continual review, particularly in light of studies linking food with addiction. Although food litigation has been initiated against food companies by the obese in other jurisdictions, and has had an impact on the eating environment, this is not a realistic prospect in New Zealand, even as a last resort, in the absence of appropriate regulation.