Dr Rhys Jones, Senior Lecturer at Auckland University. Photo / Supplied

Professor says poor social conditions to blame for ethnic divide in health outcomes.

An official report has uncovered starkly unequal lives for New Zealand's main ethnic groups, with Maori men living an average of only 54 years before developing a disability requiring assistance from others.

The Social Report, a 300-page "state of the nation" survey by the Ministry of Social Development, also shows New Zealanders rate their own health higher than anywhere else in the OECD and that fewer people are victims of crime - but that te reo Maori speakers are declining rapidly, especially in older age groups as native Maori speakers die off.

The report was published annually from 2001 to 2010 but was then moved to a three-yearly cycle to cut costs. The report due in 2013 was postponed to include 2013 Census data, and has just appeared without fanfare on the ministry's website.

It shows that life has got better on 28 out of 44 measures that can be compared over the past decade, including on life expectancy and "health expectancy" - years lived in good health with no need for external assistance.

The health expectancy measure sums up some ethnic inequalities. Based on disability surveys with each Census, health expectancy has risen for all groups except Maori men, for whom it improved from 56 years in 1996 to 57 in 2001 and 60 in 2006, but dropped back to just 54 in 2013.

The numbers have a margin of error of two to four years in each survey, so the trend is uncertain. But there is a huge gap between health expectancy for Maori men and Maori women (60 years in 2013) and especially compared with non-Maori men and women (both 67).

The samples are not big enough to separate out Asian and Pacific people.

 Dr Rhys Jones (Ngati Kahungunu), an Auckland University public health lecturer involved in a group promoting Maori men's health, Mana Tane Ora, said Maori men's poor health stemmed from their generally poor social conditions shown in other indicators in the report.

"One of the reasons for those disparities between Maori and non-Maori is related to diet and obesity."

Almost half (47 per cent) of adult Maori, and 66 per cent of Pacific adults, were obese in 2014-15, compared with 29 per cent of Europeans and 12 per cent of Asians.

"It's really important to see those things as not wholly about individual lifestyle choices, but actually relating to the conditions that people live in and the opportunities they have and the resources that they have available, such as access to healthy food and physical activity," Dr Jones said.

He said employment and poverty were key determinants of health. One in every eight adult Maori (12.2 per cent) was unemployed in March this year, up from 8.9 per cent in 2009, compared with one in 23 Europeans (4.4 per cent, up from 3.6 per cent).

"The primary focus needs to be on addressing the social and economic inequalities and actually providing good opportunities for Maori men in terms of employment, particularly access to good income," Dr Jones said. "Inevitably that goes back to education and providing a good start in life."

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