In part 6 of Croakey’s election series, Jane Martin, Senior Policy Adviser of the Obesity Policy Coalition, writes that neither major party has come to terms with what is needed in obesity control.

The Government and Opposition are still putting ambulances at the bottom of the cliff, instead of building a fence at the top, she says.

Jane Martin writes:

“Does art imitate life or does life imitate art?

The first episode of the ABC satire The Hollowmen entitled “Fat Chance” is starting to feel more and more familiar. The episode outlines a promising plan by the government to implement obesity prevention policies that would ruffle the feathers of vested interests.  It culminates with a lacklustre focus on social marketing and community programs, in an effort to keep everyone happy.

Weight gain, unhealthy eating and inactivity are driving increases in type 2 diabetes, which is set to become Australia’s biggest preventable health burden. It will overtake tobacco smoking as the leading cause of disease, yet none of the major parties except for the Greens has so far put forward any policies around junk food marketing, food pricing and labelling.

If the government does not take a comprehensive approach to tackling overweight and obesity, there will not be enough beds, nor will they be big enough, for the 30% of Australians, representing 5.6 million people, who will be obese in four years time. The Council of Australian Governments put prevention of diabetes front and centre of the national reform agenda due to the increasing prevalence and rising costs of treating this disease.

We have seen significant funding by the Federal Government through the Partnership Agreements for the states and territories to establish and embed prevention in their health policies. What is missing from a comprehensive approach are policies at a national level that would complement this expenditure.

The Health Minister’s comments during the health debate on the hierarchy of evidence around tobacco, alcohol and obesity (in that order) were very concerning in terms of the Federal Government’s approach towards obesity prevention policies.

Putting off action and waiting for the evidence base to build because success cannot be guaranteed flies in the face of experience in tobacco control.  Policies in the seventies to remove advertising from television and implement health warnings occurred at a time where there was very little evidence that they would be effective in reducing smoking prevalence.  However, these and other actions over the last forty years, are the very reason Australia is leading the way in reducing death and disease caused by smoking.

The Preventative Health Taskforce recommendations are evidence based and evidence building. There is good evidence that junk food advertising influences what children eat, what they want to eat and what they pester their parents for.

At a glance front of pack labelling using traffic lights to show whether a product has high, medium or low levels of fat, salt and sugar helps people to identify healthier choices. Recent Australian research has also found that traffic lights are significantly more effective than the food manufacturers’ percentage daily intake labels in helping consumers to choose healthier products. Price levers are also potentially promising elements of a comprehensive policy. These are all elements that were addressed by the recommendations in the National Preventative Health Taskforce; however, as yet they have not been acted on.

The election focus of both parties has continued to be on the treatment side and what is required to manage acute illnesses rather than preventing conditions occurring in the first place; in effect they are putting ambulances at the bottom of the cliff, instead of building a fence at the top.

Both major parties are still dealing with obesity as a problem for individuals rather than a public health issue. It’s not just about people changing their behaviour, it’s about changing the underlying environment to make healthy choices, the easy choices. This is where government can play a critical role.

There is strong public support for greater regulation of junk food marketing, traffic light labelling and pricing reforms, yet no party has so far taken the initiative to make preventing obesity an election priority.”

To see the previous posts in the election series:

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