How do we solve a problem like obesity? It’s all very well for the government and the self-interested to damn calls for fat taxes, sugar taxes and subsidies on healthy foods as a means to fix the problem, but what are the alternatives?

Here’s what we do know. We’re fat and getting fatter. In fact, we’re one of the fattest nations on earth.

But any time any experts suggest ways to shift that fat, they get shot down. Most recently to get a bullet was a study headed by Cliona Ni Mhurchu, professor of population nutrition at Auckland University. Her work with Otago and Oxford universities, showed 2400 lives could be saved a year by adding a 20 percent tax to salty and fatty foods, and by subsidising fruit and vegetables by 20 percent. The extensive study modelled the effects of taxes and subsidies, and subsequent death rates from diet-related diseases such as heart disease and diabetes. “If you are serious about tackling obesity and unhealthy diets, it is clear that price is a good lever for change,” Cliona said. The data supported studies from overseas that showed taxes and subsidies applied to certain foods should make a difference to population health, she said.

The Food and Grocery Council’s predictable response was subsidising brussels sprouts by 20 percent would not make people eat more of them or any vegetable. The government has already ruled out fat and sugar taxes.

Again, here’s what we do know. Other research from Auckland University found fewer than half of 8377 packaged foods bought in our supermarkets in 2012 could be described as healthy. Even when we think a food is good it can be filled with sugar, salt and fats. The research found less than one-third of dairy, meat and bread products met nutritional criteria to carry a health claim. So wouldn’t you think a compulsory star rating system would be an obvious one to assist consumers? Apparently not. The government has had to be dragged into supporting a voluntary scheme. In Australia food manufacturers are on notice that if they don’t participate the government will make it mandatory. No such warnings here.

How about rules about marketing to kids? A recent review says the marketing of food products to children is powerful, pervasive and predatory. It’s self-regulated. Surely better rules might stop the rot before it sets in.

While manufacturers have to tell us about what’s in packaged food –with some exceptions – nutritional information is notoriously difficult to read and confusing.

So far we’ve been very good at deciding on all the things we won’t do to help us get healthier, which has achieved a fatter nation and fatter health bill. What about doing something radical like listening to the experts, using their incredibly good research and making a difference?

About the author:

Sue Chetwin has been our Chief Executive since April 2007 after more than 25 years in print journalism. She was formerly the Editor of Sunday News, Sunday Star Times and the Herald on Sunday. She says there are strong parallels between consumer advocacy and journalism.

Sue oversees all of Consumer’s operations and is also the public face of the organisation. Sue is a director of the Banking Ombudsman Scheme, an alternate on the Electricity and Gas Complaints Commission and a member of the Electricity Authority Retail Advisory group.