It’s taken National just seven years in Government to appear to realise that its campaign to end the previous Labour Government’s “nanny state” was probably wrong.

The announcement yesterday of a range of measures to combat obesity represents the biggest policy reversal that the Key Government has done.

And it’s ended up with something that looks pretty much like the measures implemented by Labour in 2007 which were National dismissed at the time as evidence of a “nanny state.”

What was even more extraordinary about the formal announcement by Health Minister Jonathan Coleman and Prime Minister John Key was the revelation that obesity will replace smoking as the Government’s top preventive health challenge.

This from the same group of Ministers, one of whom, Nick Smith in 2008 in Opposition described Labour’s healthy food in schools programme as evidence of a nanny state that was out of control.

The-then Health Minister Tony Ryall overturned the programme in 2008 after National won power.

National also scrapped the roles of district health board staff who helped schools implement the programme.

And Mr Ryall then cut funding for the Obesity Action Coalition. It closed on March 1, 2010.

But the Government yesterday announced that the Education Review Office would now conduct a “stocktake” of  how early learning and schools’ curriculums promoted positive attitudes about health, physical activity and nutrition.

Health Minister Jonathan Coleman said that obesity rates were highest within the Maori and Pasifika populations and that rates varied among schools according to their socio economic level.

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“We think the key here is going to be getting into those schools where there really are difficulties and making sure that we’ve got programmes that can help us intervene successfully,” he said.

The schools initiative was just one of 22 moves it set out designed to combat obesity.

Some are considerably more interventionist than anything Labour proposed.

The campaign will start with obese children identified at their “before school health check” as being obese being referred to a health professional “for clinical assessment and family based nutrition, activity and lifestyle interventions.”

The goal is to have 95% of children identified by December 2017.

There will be more emphasis on advice from GPs to obese women during pregnancy and Sport NZ and Regional Sports Trusts will refocus some Kiwisports programmes to areas where participation is low and obesity high.

There is a host of public education policies focusing on schools, hospitals and the public at large.

And the Government is elevating the fight against obesity into becoming one of its six main health targets.

Mr Coleman said it would replace the target aimed at having 90 percent of the eligible population having their cardiovascular risk and diabetes risk assessed in the last five years.

But what is notably absent from the programme is a sugar tax which has been proposed by some health lobbyists and the Greens.

Mr Coleman said that would be unworkable

But a source familiar with the discussions that have led to the policy said a sugar tax would have pushed up the price of a wide range of foods and hit lower income families very hard in the pocket.

It was notable that in Labour’s reaction to the package it did not call for a sugar tax, an indication that the mainstream parties could see it as a vote loser.

And Mr Coleman said there was only inconclusive evidence from a programme in Mexico to impose a sugar tax only on soft drinks.

Mr Key said the scale of the obesity problem meant that many New Zealand children might end up having shorter lives than their parents and Mr Coleman said that next year obesity would overtake smoking as New Zealand’s largest preventable health risk.

The NZ Food and Grocery Council welcomed the Government’s package.  

“This is a pragmatic approach to a concerning problem,” said Chief Executive Katherine Rich.

“We all know that childhood obesity is a complex issue and that we must all help to solve it. “

She commended the Government for engaging with industry on the issue — and so far, industry’s reaction has been much more supportive than was seen from the tobacco industry over issues like plain packaging.

“Industry has long acknowledged it has a role to play, and is already doing a lot of work around reformulation of food and beverages, portion sizes, supporting education and physical activity programmes in schools and communities, and voluntarily restricting advertising and sales aimed at children. 

“We will work with government to further those initiatives and help progress an integrated package that creates a healthy environment that enables people to make informed choices around the food they eat and their lifestyle.”

But Labour’s Andrew Little, perhaps understandably, was critical of how long it had taken for National to take up the anti-obesity issue.

“It is unacceptable that National has taken so long to wake up to the problem

“If it had prioritised prevention and early intervention we would not now be staring down the barrel of an obesity epidemic.”

And the Greens (also predictably) were critical of the decision not to tax sugar.

“Like the alcohol and tobacco industries, the junk food industry won’t voluntarily sell less of its products, so we need to use smarter measures like regulations and taxes to encourage people to change their behaviour,” said their Health spokesperson, Kevin Hague.

But though its true National is late to the party, the package marks a major shift in the whole obesity debate.

We are unlikely to hear the phrase “nanny state” tossed around Parliament quite so loosely about anti-obesity measures in future.