New Brunswick finds itself in an obesity “crisis” and the problem is only going to get worse unless action is taken by the provincial government, according to a University of New Brunswick professor.
New Brunswick is routinely singled out as one of the provinces with the highest obesity levels in Canada. Recent studies have shown 63 per cent of adult New Brunswickers and up to 36 per cent of the province’s children are overweight or obese.
Gabriela Tymowski, a kinesiology professor at the University of New Brunswick, said the province cannot afford to sit idly by and not deal with the obesity crisis.
“The direct costs of obesity to the health care system are staggering, and with rates unlikely to subside, we are in a state of crisis. As hard as it may be to believe, things will get worse,” she wrote in an opinion article for CBC News.
The provincial government must start encouraging greater physical activity through the use of innovative tax measures, creating a system of direct accountability inside the provincial government for tackling the obesity issue and bringing more accredited exercise professionals into provincial health centres and hospitals.
The UNB professor said the provincial government could help people become healthier simply by nudging them along through creative measures in the tax code.
“Offer tax incentives for the purchase of bicycles, fitness club memberships, dance and exercise classes, exercise equipment and so on. Ensure that all citizens benefit, not only those in higher tax brackets,” she wrote.
While tax incentives could be used to encourage healthier living, she said governments could push citizens away from unhealthy food choices by making them more expensive.
“In the opposite direction, consider taxing sugar-sweetened beverages which contribute empty calories,” she said, pointing out that sugar, high-fructose corn syrup and other caloric sweeteners “are a significant contributor to the obesity epidemic."
Michael Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York City, had proposed a limit on soft drink sizes in 2012. The proposed ban would have imposed a 16-ounce – or 473 millilitres — limit on the size of sweetened drinks sold in places, such as at restaurants and movie theatres.
The law was eventually struck down by the courts.
The New Brunswick government’s approach to dealing with wellness policies was singled out for criticism. Tymowski said roles and responsibilities are spread across several departments, such as Health, Social Development and Healthy and Inclusive Communities, and that can be confusing for people.
She said a single minister with the resources needed to drive a “mandate for change” is needed inside the provincial government.
Tymowski also said too much emphasis is put within the health system at treating problems after the fact, instead of investing in prevention.
“We cannot afford to continue to treat symptoms and we cannot afford the ‘silos’ and disconnects of government,” she said.
When it comes to government policies, Tymowski pointed to several initiatives that should be undertaken by the next government. She said the Department of Education should revamp its lunch programs, similar to a British initiative done several years ago.
“[British chef Jamie] Oliver created a food revolution and New Brunswick needs change of this scale,” she said.
“While we do have some school initiatives at present they are in fact falling short; guidelines have no teeth. We need policies that are supported and enforced.”
Tymowski also said the provincial government should be a leader by buying healthy foods.
The New Brunswick government announced a new buy local policy in June that would promote the use of local and healthy food at all government meetings and events.