Fa’anana Efeso Collins has been an outspoken advocate for South Auckland since being elected to Auckland Council in 2016, regularly challenging his fellow councillors, central government and the food industry to act in the best interests of his community.

Collins is frustrated with the ‘watch and wait’ position taken by decision-makers in New Zealand over some of the more drastic measures being trialled overseas to curb obesity rates.

“Obesity is a crisis for my community. We’re consigning another generation to poor health if we don’t act now. Unfortunately, because it’s largely a Māori and Pacific problem, it’s not getting the sort of attention it would, were it affecting so-called ‘middle’ New Zealand.

“Look at the housing crisis, for instance. We’ve been having a housing crisis in South Auckland since the ’60s and ’70s, but we’re only talking about it now because middle-class New Zealand is starting to experience it.”

The 2018 monitoring report on Auckland’s health, released this month by Healthy Auckland Together (HAT), draws attention to trends in obesity prevalence, nutrition and physical activity rates and the influence of the infrastructure and retail characteristics of suburbs on the health of their residents.

It gives good news for some, with a decline in the rates of obesity among pre-schoolers, and a positive trend towards more people using public transport instead of their cars.

But it is an overwhelmingly grim picture for Māori and Pacific communities. More than 70 per cent (72 per cent) of Pacific women, 50.5 per cent of Māori women, 68.8 per cent of Pacific men and 46.1 per cent of Māori men are obese. This is compared with a combined percentage of about 30 per cent overall for all ethnic groups – a rate which has remained static since 2017, compared with the stubborn growth in obesity rates for Māori and Pacific people.

Collins is broadly supportive of the measures being proposed currently in the UK, such as compulsory calorie labelling in restaurants and limiting the sale of energy drinks to children. Also under consideration by legislators in Britain are greater restrictions on advertising to children, regulating supermarket checkouts so they can’t stock unhealthy food and banning ‘two for one’ deals on confectionery.

“Obviously, these things need to be applied as part of a package. I’m very much of the view that we’ll get our best bang for buck in terms of shifting obesity rates if we target the environment that our communities are living and working in.”

Collins also has a response to the sentiments like the one expressed here by a writer for The Southland Times: ‘Your overweight kids are your responsibility, parents’.

“Absolutely education and personal responsibility have a role to play, but we need to be realistic about the stressors these families are experiencing – often struggling to make ends meet so we should be compassionate about that,” says Collins.

“Something like a sugar tax, well, we’ve seen the impact that tobacco taxes have had and while I don’t like them for the pressure they put on families, they do eventually shift behaviour so we would have to consider that in obesity prevention too. I just think that’s more effective than bashing people over the head with this notion that everything is their fault and if they tried a bit harder it would be all good because that’s just not true.”

It is well established that Auckland’s most deprived communities have the least access to fresh food, the highest density of fast food outlets and liquor stores, and the lowest proportion of green spaces compared with more affluent suburbs. The 2018 HAT monitoring report supports this, and notes a greater increase in fast food retailers in these communities compared to grocery stores over this period.

“Look I don’t love the framing of our communities as ‘high deprivation’, but this is how things are measured and that’s how resources are distributed so I guess we’ve got to work within the system.”

“It’s not a Samoan or a Tongan system, it’s Palagi and that’s how we’ve had to do things because that’s who the decision-makers are and they make the rules.”

“If we’re going to use their language then I would also ask our health system to put health equity front and centre.”

“This would require shifting away from making pragmatic political decisions based on serving ‘middle New Zealand’ at all costs, and would require making decisions which help our communities and put their needs front and centre for a change.”

Fa’anana Efeso Collins was elected to the Auckland Council in 2016 to represent the Manukau Ward. pai Te Hauora is the country’s largest Māori public health organisation, owned by Te Rūnanga o Ngāti Whātua, Raukura Hauora o Tainui and Te Whānau o Waipareira.  http://www.hapai.co.nz

The 2018 monitoring report from Healthy Auckland Together – a coalition of health, local body iwi, research and government organisations – is available at http://www.healthyaucklandtogether.org.nz/reports/monitoring-report-2018

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