“We did it with cigarettes – not just one thing was responsible for the decline in smoking,” he said.
Nutritional guidelines displayed on packaged food were so opaque that “I can barely read, let alone understand them”, he said, while the “flawed”, voluntary health star rating system resulted in orange juice displaying five stars even though it was “packed full of sugar”.
Dr Muecke said the “pernicious advertising of sweet products” on petrol bowser pump handles should be banned, and called for a national free-to-air, government-funded public education campaign to increase awareness of the link between sugar consumption and type 2 diabetes.
The comments come as the Obesity Policy Coalition, which includes the Cancer Council, prepared to release a report showing successive state and federal governments had failed to act on expert recommendations set down a decade ago to make Australia “the world’s healthiest country” by 2020.
Obesity Policy Coalition executive manager Jane Martin said with two-thirds of Australian adults and a quarter of children above a healthy weight, it was “time for renewed focus and leadership from Australian governments.”
“Our analysis found that the focus tended to be on individuals simply changing their behaviour, however with around 12 million Australian adults above a healthy weight it is clear that fundamental changes need to be made in our society more broadly to support healthy eating and active living,” Ms Martin said.
“Corporations continue to peddle unhealthy products and profit at the expense of people’s health, including children. We’ve seen industry continually push back on controls that would introduce higher standards to put people’s health above profits.”
Tim Piper, Australian Industry Group’s head of confectionery, said the industry was working to educate consumers that “they shouldn’t overindulge” in what was intended to be “a treat food”.
“Eat it appropriately and the issue of obesity is much less likely to be a factor,” Mr Piper said.
Ms Martin said the industry had attempted to “dodge regulation under the guise of self compliance” and that policies including a tax on sugary drinks, improved food labelling and reducing children’s exposure to unhealthy advertising had “been shown to work around the world”.
“Focusing effort on approaches around individual behaviour change will not succeed in making the changes that we need to see unless we make this easy for people,” she said.
The federal government is developing a national obesity strategy with the states and territories.
Victorian health minister Jenny Mikakos said the state was working on a childhood obesity strategy “to protect Victorian kids from the serious health risks associated with obesity”, which must be tackled nationally.
“We believe Victorians should be given the information they need to access healthy options – that’s why we have legislated kilojoule labelling, advocated for sugars labelling on infant food and continue to support the Health Star Rating,” she said.
A NSW health spokeswoman said the NSW government was investing $36.6 million towards reducing the prevalence of overweight and obesity in 2019-20, including $24.7 million to prevent childhood obesity.
“NSW continues its comprehensive approach to reduce overweight and obesity, from dedicated hospital clinics to widespread community programs encouraging healthy eating and active living,” the spokeswoman said.
“Health professionals are actively working with families with children above a healthy weight to support and encourage behaviour change.”
A spokesman for federal Health Minister Greg Hunt said the minister “is deeply concerned about the current rate of obesity in Australia”.
“Work has commenced to consider project objectives, scope, targets and national consultation approach for a National Obesity Strategy, [which is] expected to be presented to the COAG Health Council in June,” the spokesman said.
Dana is health and industrial relations reporter for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.