Health bureaucrats hit the road with ‘transformative’ new plan to tackle obesity

“Unhealthy food and drinks are available almost everywhere, are cheap to buy and are heavily
marketed. They are hard to resist and influence what we think of as normal, everyday food.

“Transformative change is possible … Australians expect and want governments to act.”

The paper canvasses a broad range of potential solutions – including the politically sensitive option of a sugar tax, which public health experts say is a proven, evidence-based way to reduce consumption of sugary foods and drinks, but which both major parties oppose.

Health bureaucrats have embarked upon a national “road show” to seek input on the strategy, and will tour country NSW next week.

More than 14 million people in Australia are overweight or obese, including two thirds of adults and a quarter of children – who the paper said were “vulnerable to the influence of advertising” and “can’t always tell the difference between factual and promotional information”.

The paper also raises the possibility of government subsidies for fruit, vegetables and water, as well as a much-discussed volumetric alcohol tax.

It says partnerships with schools can deliver healthy school canteens, an emerging trend that has resulted in lower sales as some students turn to Uber Eats for more tantalising snacks.

The consultation paper said “there is now [a] global consensus” that increased availability and marketing of “cheap, unhealthy food and drinks” was a key driver of overweight and obesity in developed countries, along with a sedentary lifestyle.

“An average Australian supermarket now stocks about 30,000 packaged foods, with many being highly processed, unhealthy foods,” it said.

Beverage manufacturers have hit back at efforts to convince politicians to back a sugar tax with a pledge to reduce the amount of sugar in their products by 20 per cent by 2025, arguing that voluntary reformulation is the best way forward.

Australian Beverages Council chief executive Geoff Parker said the non-alcohol drinks industry “is already on its way to reducing sugar” in its products and reducing pack sizes, calling on other manufacturers to “take similar action”.

“Parents must continue to have the final say on whether children consume juice and flavoured milk,” Mr Parker said.

These items have been phased out of some school canteens under government health eating guidelines.

The Beverages Council will be in Canberra on Monday to unveil a progress report on the first stage of its pledge to reduce the industry’s use of sugar by 10 per cent on June 2018 levels by 2020.

Obesity Policy Coalition executive manager Jane Martin, a veteran public health campaigner who fought for plain packaging and higher taxes on tobacco products, warned against allowing industry to help shape the national obesity strategy.

“Industry should be consulted at the implementation stage, but should not be able to influence public health policy,” Ms Martin said.

Health Minister Greg Hunt.Credit:AAP

She said international experience showed that imposing a tax on sugary soft drinks was effective at reducing energy consumption – the main contributor to overweight and obesity.

But Health Minister Greg Hunt told The Sun-Herald and The Sunday Age: “We don’t believe increasing people’s cost of living is the most effective way to address obesity.”

Mr Hunt said the issue required action from all levels of government, along with “not-for-profit groups and industry”.

Australian Food and Grocery Council director of health and nutrition Geoffrey Annison said the peak body “recognises obesity is a serious and complex public health issue” and that “a holistic approach must be taken in tackling it”.

“The food and grocery manufacturing sector continues to take positive steps to address obesity, including product re-formulations and labelling changes, helping consumers make more informed decisions,” Dr Annison said.

“However, there is no single cause or quick fix solution to obesity in Australia.”

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