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public health

Nov 11, 2010

Should industry be advising the National Preventive Health Agency?

As previously reported at Croakey, p

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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.

****

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

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