A new coalition of leading health experts is calling for urgent government action to stem the escalating rates of overweight and obesity in children.
At an event today to mark its official launch, the Obesity Policy Coalition* (OPC) will present a package of proposals for consideration by political parties prior to the federal election. The package includes a GST on high sugar breakfast cereals and an overhaul of food and beverage product labelling to support people in making healthier choices.
Currently one quarter of Australian children are overweight or obese and it is estimated this will rise to 60% in thirty years' time. The OPC's senior policy adviser, Ms Jane Martin said it is a ridiculous situation where the federal government is effectively subsidising high sugar cereals by allowing them to be free of a GST.
"Some cereals being marketed are up to 40 per cent sugar which in reality is no different to the levels of sugar in some confectionery products. These cereals are an occasional treat, not an everyday food, and should be taxed accordingly," said Ms Martin.
The OPC also proposes a new mandatory food and beverage labelling system that would see traffic light colours put on the front of all packaged food indicating levels of sugar, salt and saturated fat. High levels would be red, medium would be orange and low would be green.
"These cereals are a good example of the common practice for the front of food packaging to emphasise particular ingredients without highlighting the high sugar levels. Clear and consistent labelling would give a more accurate assessment of the healthiness of products," said Ms Martin.
"Improving and simplifying the information available to consumers has the potential to improve understanding of the contribution different foods make to their diet. This can stimulate changes in food choices and ultimately lead to improved population health," she added.
The OPC is also calling for a comprehensive ban on marketing of unhealthy food to children under 16 in all media, including television, internet, email and mobile phones.
Obesity expert and director of the WHO Collaborating Centre on Obesity Prevention at Deakin University, Boyd Swinburn said there is substantial evidence that food marketing has an effect on what children eat.
"Children and adolescents are key targets of big budget, sophisticated marketing campaigns by food and beverage companies and need to be protected. Junk food marketing targets children and young people where they study, work and play and employs invasive approaches like websites, email, direct mail and sampling. High sugar cereals in particular are marketed aggressively to children who in turn pester their parents to buy them.
"Restricting food marketing to children would be a promising, successful and cost-effective strategy for improving children's diets, as part of a broad multistrategic approach to dealing with the overweight and obesity epidemic" said Mr Swinburn.
*The Obesity Policy Coalition (OPC) is a new group of obesity experts from the Cancer Council Victoria, Diabetes Australia - Vic and the World Health Organization (WHO) Collaborating Centre on Obesity Prevention at Deakin University, with support from VicHealth.
Summary of the Obesity Policy Coalition's proposals:
• Tax anomalies to be addressed by:
- removing high sugar cereals from the broad exemption of breakfast cereals from GST;
- offering tax incentives for public transport and bicycle use;
• A mandated front of pack labeling scheme utilising traffic light colours to indicate whether the product contains high (red), medium (orange)
or low (green) levels of fat, salt and sugar;
• A comprehensive ban on marketing of unhealthy food to children under 16 in all media, including television, internet, email and mobile
A full copy of the Obesity Policy Coalition's Federal Government Manifesto can be downloaded from http://www.opc.org.au/