By Michael Reddell 29/04/2016

The Herald reports that new Auckland university research shows –  shock, horror – that:

“Sixty-nine per cent of urban schools have a convenience store within 800m and sixty-two per cent have a fast-food or takeaway shop in that distance”

I was surprised the number was that low, but then in Wellington one finds small schools in all sorts of odd nooks and crannies.  My three kids now go to three different schools, and each of the schools has shops nearby.  As it was nearest, we took a walk around the area that encircles my youngest child’s decile 10 primary school.

What did we find?

On the first corner:

  • a dairy
  • a specialist pie shop

On the next corner:

  • two dairies
  • the Empire Cinema, with its neighbourhood café and gelato outlet

And then in the main shopping area

  • the supermarket, (as the kids pointed out, it was chock full of all sorts of stuff, “good” and perhaps “not so good”)
  • a Hell Pizza outlet
  • two fairly casual daytime cafes with plenty of take-out options
  • a combination fish and chip shop/Chinese takeaway
  • an Indian takeaway
  • another dairy
  • a lunch-bar/bakery
  • the butcher –  bacon and cheerios don’t score well on the “disapproval” lists, and that is before getting onto the question of red meat.

And that was without including the:

  • bottle store and bar, and
  • three other evening-focused restaurants, two offering take-out
  • and a couple of arty galleries/shops selling quite good chocolate.

But so what?

If 70 per cent of urban schools are close to at least one convenience or takeaway outlet, isn’t that simply telling us that our schools are typically in the heart of our neighbourhoods.  Which is probably where they should be.   And I’d be surprised if the number of dairies and takeaway places has changed much in the almost 40 years since I was getting off the school bus at one of these corners (although there was no gelato back then, even in this Italian-influenced suburb).

Buried in the Herald article, well past the calls for governments to “do something”, was this comment from the lead researcher:

But she acknowledged that no link between obesity and access to unhealthy food shops had been clearly established by research.

‘The evidence is quite mixed…You don’t have to wait for the evidence to take action.  It’s the same with the sugar tax –  there’s no definite evidence. It’s hard to get definite evidence in science.  The fact is, unhealthy food is so available, accessible, affordable, we should protect children from potentially harmful products. ‘

Definitive evidence

At one level one can sympathise.  Definitive evidence is certainly hard to come by in lots of areas (including the ones I’ve been closer to, in macroeconomics).  But it is also a good reason for governments to be particularly wary of optional regulatory interventions, that directly impinge on ordinary citizens’ choices and options.

And that is even if one granted that obesity was somehow the government’s problem.  The common argument is that the public health system makes it so, because the government bears the medical costs of the choices people make.  There is something to that of course but as an argument it has chilling implications: we should give the government the right to coercively regulate all manner of behavior, simply because the government bears one lot of the costs if things go wrong?  I support a public health system, but taken very far this argument will eventually risk undermining support for such a system, and that would be unfortunate.

In fact, most of the costs of obesity fall on the individuals concerned, and perhaps their families.  A shortened life expectancy, or more sick days, has a cost to the person concerned.  The benefits from the food consumption, or choice to do things other than exercise, also accrue to the individual.

People don’t always make wise choices, especially children and young people.  Part of growing up is taking risks, and pushing the boundaries.  But a big part of good parenting is to constrain the choices, and to educate kids in a way that means they are less likely to push the boundaries too far.  It is about the ability to say no – to offer treats in sensible sizes and sensible frequencies and to balance that with a good basic, balanced diet.  Good parenting requires adults to model eating sensibly –  both within the family, and within whatever other groups the family might be part of (church, marae, sports club, or whatever).  This is a big part of what culture is –  memorizing, practising and reinforcing a sense of the way we do things, ways that support getting through life reasonably successfully).

Do governments have a role in all this?

I don’t see one (and was unnerved to read that the Health Minister is apparently proud of the fact that the government has “22 initiatives targeting child obesity”).  Which Ministers (or their Opposition peers) would I regard as good role models, or qualified to provide guidance on shaping the next generation?  A few perhaps, but not many.  Speaking personally, I’ve never found the presence of dairies, takeaway, or even the layout of supermarket shelves makes my parenting more difficult.  Perhaps others have a different experience.  To loop back to the Auckland University researcher’s acknowledgement, some robust evidence would be nice before governments rush in, trying to tell people where they can locate their businesses, who they can sell, and so on.

But my inclinations are more austere Puritan than New Zealand Initiative libertarian, so although I don’t see a role for government controls in this area.  I was quite shocked last night when my elder daughter told me that her intermediate school sells potato chips and a variety of other foods of dubious nutritional value at the morning break.  I’m running for the Board of Trustees and if elected would want the school to look again at what products it was offering for sale.

Speaking of the New Zealand Initiative, Geoff Simmons of the Morgan Foundation had an op-ed in this morning’s Dominion-Post attacking the Initiative for its new report The Health of the State and its skeptical take on specific taxes on disapproved classes of food (and alcohol and tobacco).  Simmons leads with the point that the Initiative is “corporate-funded”.  It is not as if there is any secret as to where the Initiative gets its money from – its members are listed in the Annual Report.  I was rather disconcerted to learn that the Wellington City Council (always happy to intervene in anything) was a member as well as Auckland University.

There are lots of things I disagree with the Initiative on, but the issue should surely be the quality of the argumentation, analysis, and evidence. That goes for the Morgan Foundation surely just as much as for the New Zealand Initiative –  both privately-funded research and advocacy bodies, whose presence lifts the generally weak level of public debate in New Zealand.

Simmons suggests that it is really all about “ideology”.  I don’t think that is right –  there is plenty of debate, or should be, about evidence (partial as it inevitably often is).   But he ends his column this way:

“Instead of a facile debate over whether a sugar tax would work or not, we should be discussing which we value more –  living in a free society where you can eat what you like and burden the state, or whether we value having a healthy productive society”

Surely there is room for both?

A serious ongoing debate about the impact and efficacy of proposed interventions is needed, using insights from overseas experience, from other similar interventions, and so on.  But also a debate about what sort of society we want.  Personally, I like the idea of a free society in which people can eat whatever they like –  but typically choose to restrain themselves, in food as in all other areas of life.  We don’t exist as servants of the state – if anything, it is the other way round.  Civilisation and prosperity have always required restraint and self-discipline in a whole variety of areas of life.  But the track record of governments in creating such cultures doesn’t look good:  governments more often corrode cultures than foster successful ones.


Featured image: CC wikimedia

0 Responses to “Food, culture, regulation”

  • “You don’t have to wait for the evidence to take action”

    Then what do you have to wait for? Blind prejudice? Ifyou don’t have the evidence how do you know what to do?

  • Paul- this concerns me as well. We insist that medicine be evidence-based and criticise many alternative medicines for this reason. I like to insist that conservation policy- especially around the trade in wildlife- be evidence based. This is especially important when emotional arguments are employed as a substitute.

    I’m not sure why for obesity, we are supposed to suddenly drop this criterion in the guise of “we must try something”.

  • Michael- I suppose at one thing to factor in, is that in the case of food so much of our behaviour is driven by instincts and autonomic reactions. The sight of food will kick in a host of hormonal responses to prompt us to eat. We stop eating when other hormonal responses inform our body we’ve reached satiety. There’s little we can do to change these physical responses. This is different to many other consumer goods.

    I’m not sure how this relates to regulation (and other fiscal responses) but it seems we need to consider this also

    • Yes, but doesn’t that apply to lot of areas of life (sexual attraction is an obvious example). Seems to me that is what the cultural restraints are all about – building in patterns of behavior etc that deal with our weaknesses/ temptations etc.

      It is interesting to ponder what marks the difference between those for whom obesity is simply not an issue, and those for whom it is. I suspect “culture” broadly defined will be a large part of it.

      • Michael- I think there is some qualitative differences between food and other things (including sexual attraction). Food-instincts are a constant, from birth. Sexuality occurs later in life, and (I assume!) doesn’t demand satiety 2-3 times per day. At the physiological level food is just..well…different. And it has a suite of autonomous responses that we don’t get from buying jeans or iPhones.

        And I think the rapidly expanding level of physical inactivity has much to do with the level of obesity (and other NCDs) . There’s likely to be a physiological limit on how little food people can eat and still achieve satiety. If the output of energy sinks faster than what we can comfortably eat, we have a problem. I was reflecting that for all the school children driven to and from school, it mattered little if there was a dairy within 50m or 200m of the school. At least the kids who visit a dairy are walking….

  • I don’t really disagree with what you say but doesn’t it come back to parental practices etc. A much smaller proportion of kids need to be driven to school than currently are.

    And the incidence of obesity does seem to be quite different across social classes (for want of a better word), not just here but in other advanced countries. To me, that suggests that whatever the physiological impulses, the “upper” classes have managed to develop (or maintain) institutions (broadly defined) that allow them to keep energy input better balanced with energy expenditure.

  • The people with more wealth do not have to stress about basic needs (rent, power and food) and feel from media messages like they do not have enough based on the image they have of themselves. They feel they do not have enough, consuming more food for a few minutes often helps with the stress of needing more.Then the feeling of pleasure turns to suffering as overeating becomes habitual and the pleasure gained from consuming excess food disappears.

    Overeating is physiological, (in children it can become a habit learned from parents) treating it as a physical problem would not work ( such as making kids walk to school) though this is a good idea for health.

    • Good points Helen, shame there is so much misunderstanding about overeating( obesity)and so many people who think they know and don’t but add to the chaos of ignorance.

  • Michael- I wouldn’t of course, go so far as to say we can’t influence our feeding responses. Nonetheless, there’s still some strong physiological impulses that will make food say, more challenging to modify. I think in terms of obesity, the long term trend is for all socio-economic groups (however defined by race, education or income) to experience (in aggregate) rises in income. There are interesting gaps. Women are more likely to be obese than men, Pacific Islanders more so than Maori, Maori more so that European and Asians. The wider point is all groups have gone up. Family influences have not been enough to stem it, even in higher socio-economic groups.

    Culturally-speaking, its only been very recently we’ve had this sudden concern with too much food. Historically, we all sought food high in energy (sugars, fats, proteins) because starvation was a constant risk. I suspect much of the NZ diet is influenced by our rural history (or Polynesian) and the physical work in the pastoral economy.

    The devil is in the detail, and I suspect some of the success some people have had at avoiding weight-gain is ability to adapt diet to suit modern lifestyles. We know that vegetarian diets for instance, are statistically more likely to reduce weight. There, plants replace energy-dense foods, and as satiety occurs as hormonal response to stomach distending, they tend to have a lower calorie intake.

  • The “research” quoted in the Herald barely deserves the description, and certainly proves nothing, nor even creates more questions that further research could answer. It is similar to a piece of research that used headpiece cameras to record how often school children saw ‘bad food’ or ‘bad’ food messages in their environment – really, truly! That we live in an environment of abundant food is (sorry) abundantly evident. What we don’t know, nor can any current research tell us, I believe, is why our populations is statistically getting fatter. Perhaps a group could research how healthy our population is, and relate it to BMI (the standard, sadly outdated message for obesity), but then we would have to define the term healthy – visits to the Doctor each year, how many medications one takes, whether you get 1, 5 or 10 colds per year etc etc? Our human physiology is so complex, as is our social environment that many researchers are clutching at straws to find a magic bullet (which doesn’t exist). (Good use of cliche there!)I am thankful that I live in a world where polio, smallpox and other life threatening diseases are no longer a threat, where antibiotics help our bodies fight major infections, and where a surgeon can clear cataract-misted sight, and life expectancy, with a good quality of life, is around 20 years greater than it was early last century.

  • its worth remembering that most schools including high schools had a local shop eg Flos’ Tuck Shop which sold cream buns and mutton pies in the 50s and 60s often to kids who had missed breakfast. Yet “fatties” we’re rare. It’s actually a complicated issue.
    In those days there were mums at home, bicycles, two parent families, no DPB, very few resettled Polynesians (seasonal work and dawn raids).
    Food cultures (and attendant gut fauna) may not migrate well into consumer societies. Canned food is s problem in “First Nation” communities. Personal motorised personal transport had an impact on rural waistlines as well. Increased consumption of alcohol among adults may be an influence as well. Overweight adults and their lack of exercise is likely to have some effect on the physical activity of children in those households. There seems to be much more toleration of physical inactivity at schools these days too. There doesn’t seem to be the same level of involvement by teachers in physical activity. Sport at all levels had become a spectator activity. Finally the ubiquiy of computer screens into households and pockets must have had an effect particularly when poorly supervised by parents.
    I think regulation of sugar and salt levels is a better option than taxing. Colour coding of sugar and nutrient value might be the best option combined with good classroom
    classroom education and regular mass media reminders.

  • I agree with Stuart’s comment’s about causes. I believe research has shown the average calorie intake has dropped. It is just the calorie expenditure has dropped even more.
    However, I believe the regulation of sugar is fraught with difficulties. Look at the sugar content of freshly squeezed orange juice (the stuff that advertises no added sugar) It is comparable to Coke. Even a lot of fruit is very high in sugar. People buy rubbish food even when it is expensive. Look at the prices paid at sports events.
    “Education” is given as the answer to so many of life’s problems, but there is no real evidence it works in unmotivated people. Why do people still want to start smoking , despite the years of lung cancer pictures on cigarette packets? If people want to improve the health of society at large, it needs to be something that works, not something that shows we are doing something. And stop the nonsense about not being able to call fat people fat. They are that way because the eat more calories than they burn – nothing else.