Removing sugary drinks from schools is proven to have positive outcomes. But the government’s current proposal doesn’t go far enough, says a South Auckland dietitian calling for restrictions on advertising around schools.
The bus stop outside the Manukau outpatient Superclinic has a V drink advertisement on display. A large number of dairies in Manurewa, Ōtara and Māngere have posters about Coke or energy drinks on special. There are many fast food restaurants, bakeries and takeaway shops in close proximity to each other in this part of Tāmaki Makaurau, also selling a range of sugary drinks.
Driving around South Auckland, home to the largest Pacific population in Aotearoa, it’s no surprise that this community has the highest fizzy drinks consumption in children aged 2-14 years. The latest data from the New Zealand Health Survey 2020/21 shows that 21% of Pacific children aged 2-14 consume three or more fizzy drinks per week. That’s more than Māori (20%), New Zealand European and other (9%) and Asian (6%) kids.
Earlier this month, minister of education Chris Hipkins announced a plan to regulate primary schools to be sugary-drink free, with consultations underway until June 2 – but Health Coalition Aotearoa (HCA) nutritionists say the proposal needs to apply to all schools and include healthy food options. Their argument, says HCA Chair Boyd Swinburn, is that most primary schools are already fizz-free, so regulating them will make very little difference. “High schools and healthy food in schools is the real next fight to protect children’s food environments on school grounds, as 2016 data shows that just a quarter of secondary schools had healthy beverages,” Swinburn says.
Which is what dietitian Mafi Funaki-Tahifote sees among Pacific children and students in Aotearoa. “As kids get older and have pocket money to spend, they make decisions for themselves without parental supervision and it’s easy to go for the soft drink option because it tastes better, it’s refreshing on a hot day and affordable,” she says. Funaki-Tahifote looks at me and sighs, and I immediately sense what she will say next. “In Tonga, we grew up knowing that water is the best drink until processed sugary beverages entered our shores and were heavily marketed to our people. That’s the problem I’m seeing here.”
Having grown up in Māngere, where there’s a Carl’s Jr, McDonald’s, KFC and Burger King within walking distance at the town centre, I know what she means. I too grew up with a Tongan mother who talked about how drinking water is good, yet when I got off the bus to school, the temptation to get a sugary drink with a pie before the bell rang was too hard to pass up. That was over ten years ago. Funaki-Tahifote says that sugary drinks are one of the contributing factors to health issues such as diabetes, obesity and poor dental hygiene for Pacific people. “It also affects the concentration level for students during school hours, as well as the wellbeing of the children,” she says.
Yendarra School in Ōtara was one of the first adopters of a water-only policy. It’s been fizzy drink free since 2007, with students and teachers only drinking water or milk at school and events. After 10 years, in 2017, New Zealand Dental Association revealed that the number of cavities they were seeing at the school had dropped, and the number of extractions performed had halved.
Porirua East Primary School in Te Whanganui-a-Tara, where 40% of the students are Pasifika, has been a water-only school for over 10 years too. Principal Irene Unasa says they wouldn’t have it any other way. “When we first rolled out this plan, there was the occasional student who would still turn up to school with a sugary drink and we would have to confiscate it and remind parents and families that we’re a water-only school, but now it’s the norm,” she says.
The decision to only have water in school came from the need to incorporate healthy living in the children’s education. “The Ministry of Education was promoting water-only schools at the time and I was happy to go down that road. We also had one of our senior classrooms do an insightful presentation on sugary drinks and seeing the amount of sugar in a Coke was unbelievable, so that too helped with the decision to become a water-only school.” Not only has there been a positive change for the students embracing water at Porirua East, there’s been a massive drop in litter at the school, Unasa notes. Students are expected to bring their water bottles to school every day and fill them up at the water fountains.
Funaki-Tahifote wants the government’s proposed policy to go further by prohibiting advertising sugary drinks and unhealthy food around schools. “When kids are walking to school, they’re walking past many triggers for sugary drinks in the form of advertising materials,” she says. If we restrict advertising around schools for sugary drinks up to 500 metres, children’s eyes won’t be bombarded with colourful drinks when they step out the school gates. Healthy zones around schools and kura support families to normalise healthy food and drink choices.”
The dietitian has heard the sentiment that “it’s the fault of the people” too many times to count, but she argues it’s not easy to make healthy choices when constantly being reminded of the unhealthy options available in the environment you live in. I share an example of driving down Remuera Road and instead of takeaway stores, there are multiple cafes, boutique homeware stores and health and beauty clinics. Funaki-Tahifote says people in Remuera would have stood up and said no when plans for a takeaway or alcohol store near schools were under discussion. “Their voices get heard in community meetings and that’s what we need to do here with the consultation happening now. We need nutritionists and public health experts to submit their thoughts, think of the communities worst hit such as the Pasifika community and speak out.”
The consultation is an opportunity for schools, kura, families and health professionals to have their say on the proposed approach, which is for primary school pupils to be only allowed to drink water, milk and non-dairy milk substitutes at school.
This is Public Interest Journalism funded through NZ On Air.