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Should industry be advising the National Preventive Health Agency?

As previously reported at Croakey, plans are progressing (albeit slowly) to establish the Australian National Preventive Health Agency.

When a bill to establish the Agency was recently put to the House of Representatives, the Coalition (which voted against the bill) was defeated in seeking amendments that would have, amongst other things, required the Agency’s advisory council to include industry reps.

Would it have been useful, for example, to have a representative of the food industry on the council?

Public health specialist Associate Professor Peter Sainsbury, from the Sydney School of Public Health, considers the arguments for and against such a move.

Peter Sainsbury writes:

The House of Representatives has narrowly passed the bill to establish the somewhat oddly named Australian National Preventive Health Agency, as broadly recommended by the Taskforce chaired by Rob Moodie.

The Opposition wanted to include on the agency’s advisory council representation from the food and beverage industry but this was a compromise too far for even this government and the proposal was rejected.

This has prompted some discussion among public health workers about whether it is better to have opposing voices inside or outside the tent.

According to a ‘Digest’ on the Parliamentary Library website (posted 29 October 2010 and accessed 6 November 2010), ‘the Advisory Council’s functions would be to advise and make recommendations to the CEO about the CEO’s functions […]. It is important to note that the Advisory Council’s power is restricted to advising or making recommendations to the CEO—it could not actually give any directions to the CEO.’ That is, the Advisory Council will not be a governing board.

The arguments for including food and beverage industry representation on the advisory council will be fairly plain to any political observer.

For instance, representation: will build links between the industry and public health advocates; will ensure that the council’s advice is more cognisant of industry aims, constraints, willingness to act, etc.; may hasten the industry’s production and promotion of more health promoting products; will add legitimacy to the council’s advice; and may diminish or even undermine any public opposition to the agency’s actions by the food and beverage industry.

On the other hand, industry representation may simply delay and diminish much needed government action to both improve the availability and consumption of nutritious, affordable food and drink, and reduce the availability, promotion and consumption of health damaging foods.

Putting aside the question of why the food and beverage industry and why not a host of other industries that have a vested interest here, for me the issue is quite simple:

1.      The general goal of the agency will be to promote the health of Australians;

2.      The goal of the advisory council should be to support the CEO and the agency to achieve the goal of promoting health;

3.      Every member of the advisory council should be unreservedly committed to that goal;

4.      The goals of the food and beverage industry (and the tobacco industry, and the alcohol industry, and the advertising industry, and the media industry) are to make as big a profit as possible and to protect the interests of its share holders, bearing in mind legal and long term viability considerations. Promoting health is not one of the industry’s goals. (This isn’t to say that there aren’t any companies in these industries that aren’t committed to promoting health, although I suspect that they are small and few and far between);

5.      Any true representative of the food and beverage industry on the advisory council could not be unreservedly committed to achieving the agency’s goal;

6.      There is no place for a representative of the food and beverage industry on the advisory council.

This does not mean that the agency (or the Department of Health and Aging or the government) should not talk with the food and beverage or any other industry, or that the industry cannot legitimately try to influence the political process.

Nor does it mean that representatives of vested interest groups should never be appointed to government committees, advisory groups, taskforces, etc.

The test of the appropriateness of an appointment to any government body or committee is whether the appointee can unreservedly commit her/himself to achieving the goals of the agency or the terms of reference of the committee.

Representatives of industries that depend for their survival in the market on the production and consumption of health damaging products have no place on the Advisory Council of the Australian National Preventive Health Agency.

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PS from Croakey: If readers have views on this issue, please let us know what you think ….

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  • 1
    Gavin Mooney
    Posted November 14, 2010 at 1:59 pm | Permalink

    Well said Peter but oh so very gently… What a bizarre idea to have these guys on this council!

    But then why not? We could have Twiggy Forrest in the Cabinet; Tony Blair to be nominated for the Sydney Peace Prize; George Bush’s memoirs for the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction; Jacob Zuma to head the Global HIV/AIDS Forum; ….

    This could be catching. Other suggestions from Croakey readers?

  • 2
    Gavin Mooney
    Posted November 16, 2010 at 11:58 pm | Permalink

    Abbott accused the government of putting business interests ahead of public health. “I was shocked to discover that the health secretary is involving companies like McDonald’s and PepsiCo and big manufacturers in shaping policy on nutrition. There is a wealth of literature that shows that junk food and fast food is the worst kind of diet and rather than taking advice from people who peddle it we should be helping people avoid it. This government has already in just a few months sold out the interests of the nation to the interests of big business,”.

    Diane Abbott that is not our Tony. She is the UK Shadow Public Health Minister.

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