Fat chance to fix obesity without govt keeping the pressure on industry

Tuesday 1 September, 2009

A coalition of peak health bodies has welcomed the obesity recommendations of the National Preventative Health Taskforce, but warns the government needs to be strong and hold industry to account while focussing on interventions that will deliver the greatest gains to our community.

In reviewing the Taskforce's recommendations, Senior Policy Adviser for the Obesity Policy Coalition, Jane Martin, said that many of the recommendations were very worthy such as phasing out junk food advertising to children, improving food labelling, reviewing tax and pricing systems. However, governments will need to take a tough stance and actively monitor the behaviour of the food industry to ensure they are actually addressing the changes they've been entrusted with and delivering the results.

"The food and advertising industries have been entrusted to do the right thing by being granted the opportunity to continue with self-regulation of advertising, however, experience shows that the current system is complex, lacks sufficient incentives to comply, is not adequately enforced and does not address the volume of unhealthy food marketing to children," said Ms Martin.

"In addition, industry has been given a reprieve from regulation in terms of food labelling systems; however it's important that any scheme developed helps drive consumers to make healthier choices. Evidence shows that a traffic light system would be more effective than the percent dietary intake scheme currently in use.

"The obesity time bomb is ticking and further delay is only going to make the problem worse. The time to act is now - gains through the Health and Hospital Reform agenda rely heavily on halting the increase in obesity in our population. The government must accept the Taskforce's recommendations on advertising and promotion of junk food to children, implement tax and pricing strategies and a robust labelling scheme to pull us out of this current obesogenic environment."

Ms Martin said there were several areas where there was overwhelming public support for change including:

Greater regulation of TV advertising

A Cancer Council Victoria survey of 800 consumers recently found that 88% were in favour of a total ban of TV junk food advertising at times when children watch TV.

More than 90% called for stronger restrictions to reduce the amount of unhealthy food and drink advertising seen by children.
The survey also found 87% of consumers want to see the government regulate junk food advertising on pay TV.

"The general public has had enough of junk food producers creating their own advertising standards; they want the government to step in. They will be disappointed with the recommendation to allow the industry to continue to selfregulate in its current form," said Ms Martin.

Traffic light labelling of menus and packaged foods

"We are disappointed that government regulation to ensure a uniform traffic light labeling system hasn't been recommended. Instead, government has allowed industry to work with others to develop a scheme that may be less effective and may
result in a delay in implementation," said Ms Martin.

Traffic-light labels are simple and easy to use, helping busy consumers to make healthy choices while doing their shopping. It also helps them to compare products and to make healthier choices.

Australian research has found consumers are five times more likely to choose the healthier product when traffic lights are used than the percent daily intake scheme.

Recent UK research has also shown that consumers want traffic light labelling as part of a single, uniform system. The other benefits of this system are that it would encourage food manufacturers to reformulate their products and so reduce levels of salt, sugar and fat. It would also provide a valuable tool for health professionals to advise patients - such as people who should avoid salt - to choose products that have a green marker for salt levels.

Tax on junk food to subsidise price of healthier foods

"We welcome the investigation of pricing and tax systems particularly as food has been excluded from the Henry Taxation Review; however, this research must be an urgent priority," said Ms Martin.

"Evidence proves that price is a potent tool in reducing the consumption of tobacco and alcohol. Research has indicated that taxing unhealthy food and using subsidies to make healthier food more affordable will encourage people to eat better - particularly those in low-income brackets.

"In addition, there is overwhelming public support for the taxing of junk food. Almost three in four Australian consumers surveyed by Cancer Council Victoria are in favour of a tax on unhealthy food where the money is used to subsidise healthy options."

"This is evidence of a fantastic opportunity to implement a reform that could significantly reshape consumer demand towards healthier foods and help to combat growing levels of overweight and obesity."

About the Obesity Policy Coalition

The Obesity Policy Coalition is a group of leading public health agencies concerned with the escalating levels of overweight and obesity, particularly in children.

The Obesity Policy Coalition partners include Diabetes Australia Victoria, Cancer Council Victoria, Victorian Health Promotion Foundation (VicHealth) and the World Health Collaborating Centre for Obesity Prevention at Deakin University.