Leading health groups call on Federal Health Minister to tackle obesity

FOUR leading health groups are calling on the new Federal Health Minister Sussan Ley and the Government to take decisive action to end the widespread marketing of junk food and drink to children after a new poll reveals widespread unease about unhealthy diets.

More than 80 per cent of Australians say unhealthy eating habits are a major problem for children. More than three quarters fear that if Australians don’t lower their intake of fatty, sugary and salty foods, today’s children will live shorter lives than their parents.

In the wake of these findings of a nationwide poll, the Consumers Health Forum, the Heart Foundation, the Obesity Policy Coalition and the Public Health Association of Australia have today (20 January) urged the Federal Government to take decisive action to stop promotion of unhealthy food, particularly to children.

The groups called on Minister Ley to work with Assistant Health Minister, Fiona Nash, to develop a comprehensive national obesity prevention strategy, including:

– Moving as quickly as possible to make the new health food stars rating system compulsory for packaged food products, a measure supported by more than three quarters of people polled.
– Opposing the marketing of junk food to children on social media and outlawing advertising of these products during TV programs popular with children, including sports broadcasts
– Exploring a tax on sugar sweetened beverages
– Renewing and strengthening the national food reformulation program to reduce excessive sugar, fat and salts in processed food.

“It’s time for decisive action when 85 per cent of Australians says unhealthy diet is a problem for our children and 79 per cent fear their children will live shorter lives because of their fatty, sugary and salty food and drinks,” the four organisations said.

“It is disturbing that nearly two thirds of Australians say the food industry seems to have more say than the Government over the regulation of food.

“The evidence is damning. On unhealthy food promotion, profits have been put before people.

“Despite at least six reports from taskforces, obesity summits and research papers in the past 20 years advocating firm measures to stop marketing junk food to children, the advertising of fat, sugar and salt-drenched products continues largely unrestricted. See chronology at end of statement.

“Disturbingly junk food promotion has become more insidious via social media where children are preyed upon by food companies, out of sight of parents.

“It is a sick deception for opponents of restrictions on junk food advertising to children to talk of ‘nanny state’ measures.

“It is the food industry which has received the nanny state treatment, being protected by governments. Their products are a major factor in the spread of obesity, now costing Australia an estimated $56billion a year in direct and indirect costs.

“Unperturbed, the big food companies maintain a barrage of overt and incidental marketing of foods with high levels of fat, sugar and salt.

“More than half of Australians polled rejected the suggestion that regulating junk food advertising to children on TV and social media would be “nanny state” over reaction

“The routine association of companies like Coca Cola, KFC and McDonalds with sport has nurtured a lethal culture of routine consumption of these products, predisposing millions of Australians to a life of chronic ill-health, diabetes, heart disease and cancer in marked contrast to their sporting heroes.

“Half of Australians reject junk food and sugary drink companies sponsoring sport.

“Governments and industry have tended to offset the pressure for action on unhealthy food by focusing on measures to lift low levels of physical activity. Exercise is vital but by itself will not solve our obesity problem.

“For instance, it takes a 10-year-old about 60 minutes of running to burn off the kilojoules in a 60g Kit Kat Chunky snack bar. A 45g packet of potato crisps takes an adult woman a 20-minute run to burn off. See accompanying table.

“Making the health star system mandatory for packaged food would be a win-win-win for the Government. The measure is supported by 77 per cent of Australians. It would trigger long term population-wide health benefits. It would be at virtually no cost to the taxpayer.

“We acknowledge the work of Minister Nash in rolling out the health food stars. Now it is time for the Government to step up the concerted action needed to safeguard the health of our children for the future,” the four organisations said.

The CEO of Consumers Health Forum, Adam Stankevicius says: “There are few issues more important for health consumers than a healthy diet. In order to make the best decisions about their eating habits, consumers need the best information. Industry and government are essential providers of information about healthy eating and nutrition, as well as being regulators of the promotion of unhealthy food, particularly to children.

Improving information availability and not ‘blaming’ consumers for being obese, will create winners all round. We know there is widespread community support for action on unhealthy eating, the costs of implementation are minimal and there are long-term benefits for consumers, government, industry and public health in Australia.”

The president of the Public Health Association of Australia, Professor Heather Yeatman, says Government action is critical from both a health and financial perspective.

“Unless immediate action is taken to address dietary related illness there will be a significant increase in cancer, cardiovascular disease and diabetes. With this increase in disease there is a commensurate loss in productivity, an increase in hospitalisation and more demand on our health systems. While food companies might be increasing their profits, it is the taxpayers that will be wearing the losses. Instead of taking action to address obesity and other dietary related illness we now have government MPs trying to make the situation worse by calling for a GST on fresh food,” Professor Heather Yeatman said.

Heart Foundation National CEO Mary Barry says the obesity crisis is threatening a whole generation of children.

“The last thing children need, is more incentive to pester parents for unhealthy snacks. We have a national obesity crisis and action is needed now. Discretionary foods now make up 35 per cent of the Australian diet. These are not habits we want to pass on to our children. We call on the government to immediately launch a national obesity strategy that will tackle physical inactivity, food reformulation and tax sugar sweetened beverages. Such a tax would help protect Australian children and help stem the cost of obesity in this country which is estimated at $56 billion a year,” Mary Barry said.

Jane Martin, Executive Manager, Obesity Policy Coalition, says the current self-regulation of marketing to children is a sham, full of loopholes and totally inadequate to protect children from junk food promotions.

“Children are being bombarded with promotions of unhealthy foods through junior sport, digital apps, social media and in prime time television shows. This influences what kids eat, what they want to eat and promotes pester power. We need a comprehensive strategy that has, at it’s core, meaningful protections for children against this influence which will support them to form lifelong healthy lifestyles,” Jane Martin said.

Source: Heart Foundation

Ryan Fritz

Ryan Fritz started The Advocate in 2014 to provide not-for-profits and charities another media platform to tell their worthwhile hard news stories and opinion pieces effortlessly. In 2020, Ryan formed a team of volunteer journalists to help spread even more high-quality stories from the third sector. He also has over 10 years experience as a media and communications professional for not-for-profits and charities and currently works at Redkite, a childhood cancer charity.

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Ryan Fritz started The Advocate in 2014 to provide not-for-profits and charities with another media platform to tell their worthwhile hard news stories and opinion pieces effortlessly. In 2020, Ryan formed a team of volunteer journalists to help spread even more high-quality stories from the third sector. He also has over 10 years of experience as a media and communications professional for not-for-profits and charities.

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