Obesity is an increasing global issue. Many describe the problem as an epidemic. For Pacific communities in New Zealand, as well as the wider Pacific region, the issue of obesity is staggering. The Pacific region has the highest prevalence of obesity among adults. In New Zealand, the rate of obesity for Pacific adults is 65 percent or 2.5 times higher than the rate for other New Zealanders.

On 25 July 2012, Aniva hosted the “Preventing Obesity in Pacific Communities” seminar, with the intention of bringing together health professionals, researchers and policy makers to hear and discuss the latest research evidence for the prevention and management of obesity.

Recognising the multi-faceted and wide-ranging effects of obesity, the open event also drew participants from other sectors, such as education and social services.


Recently returned from Deakin University in Australia, Professor Boyd Swinburn (left)  is a familiar name in the area of obesity prevention research.


Now Professor of Population Nutrition and Global Health at the School of Population Health, University of Auckland, Professor Swinburn discussed the findings of various community-based obesity prevention interventions in Australia and the Pacific region, including the Pacific “Obesity Prevention in Communities” (OPIC) programme. Dr Swinburn also discussed some of the socio-cultural findings from the interventions, such as the influences on food and eating choices, body size perceptions, physical activity and other obesity-related behaviour among adolescents in Fiji, Tonga, New Zealand and Australia.  


Dr Colin Tukuitonga, Chief Executive of the Ministry of Pacific Island Affairs, brought a policy perspective to the obesity issue. He presented some reflections of how other determinants such as the topical issue of poverty can influence obesity and non-communicable diseases generally.


Dr Tukuitonga noted that there is no single magic bullet but rather addressing the issues would require long-term and coordinated interventions supported by strong policy frameworks.


From an evaluation perspective, Aniva alumni Dr Gerhard Sundborn, co-Director of the Pacific Island Families (PIF) Study at the Auckland University of Technology discussed the cost effectiveness of certain interventions, including taxes on unhealthy food, traffic light labelling, reduction of advertising junk food and school-based education programmes. His talk also covered the significant role that the health workforce has to play in a local context and the importance of quality food supply for Pacific communities.


 Consultant Paediatrician and Director of Pacific Health at the University of Auckland’s School of Population Health, Dr Teuila Percival’s talk focused on obesity amongst Pacific children and adolescents. The spectrum of issues in this area is very wide, as are the treatment options.


Dr Percival noted that because there is considerable confusion about healthy food among parents, management of obesity needs to involve simple advice in terms of nutrition and physical exercise.


She discussed the research project to compare Fanau (a weight management programme for Pacific families and their whanau) with the “Kids In Action” programme. Dr Percival noted that changing physical activity was often more attainable than changing food choices.


General Practitioner, Dr Sam Fuimaono shared his personal experience of obesity, and his subsequent participation in the “Big Boys Club” programme for Pacific men in Auckland. The key success factors of the programme have been the provision of a safe and supportive peer group environment, trainers who have an understanding of the challenges involved, an addiction specialist and individual mentoring.


Following the presentations, participants were invited to engage with the key speakers through a panel discussion and next steps session. 


A key challenge to supporting Pacific health workers to develop their leadership in relation to obesity is that data and information about Pacific health is not easily accessible.  


One of the practical actions that resulted from the seminar was the invitation to participants to contribute relevant publications and other reports to develop the knowledge and evidence base for effective action. Consideration is also being given to a clearing house for Pacific health information so that interested people can access relevant research.