Obesity stats likely to lead to wave of changes to legislation

Posted by Daniel Palmer on 24th June 2008

With Australia now credited with the worst obesity epidemic in the world, a number of policy changes have been mooted.

Health Minister Nicola Roxon said last week that the Federal Government considered obesity a concern of high priority, with a National Preventative Health Taskforce set up to provide recommendations to tackle the problem. “We’ve taken steps to make obesity a national health priority. We’re investing in community level initiatives,” she said. “Obviously this (report) increases the urgency for that work to be undertaken.”

The Australian Medical Association claims the issue requires stringent law changes to reverse the trend. “We must now aggressively tackle this problem on a number of fronts, with tangible, concrete strategies that strike at the causes of obesity and help reverse the growing trend,” AMA President, Dr Rosanna Capolingua, said.

The AMA, along with several consumer groups, have called for front-of-pack “traffic light” food labelling to be mandated to “help Australians to make informed, healthy food choices”. “Compulsory simple colour-coded labels that clearly state the sugar, fat, and salt content of food would take the confusion out of choosing food, and help Australians change their diet for the better,” Dr Capolingua claimed.

Restrictions on junk food advertising have also been recommended by consumer groups, and the AMA have now thrown their support behind the idea. “Restrictions on advertising junk food to children is another tangible way in which the Government can head off Australia’s growing obesity problem,” Dr Capolingua claimed.

Seafood Experience Australia (SEA) Chairman, Dr Ron Edwards, has welcomed information that the Federal Government would be handing out a “work in progress” health report on July 3, calling for urgent efforts to stabilise and educate people at high risk of health problems. Dr Edwards is hopeful that the government will provide an opportunity for the food industry to have their say. “For a long time we have been aware of the (positive) linkages between seafood consumption and health issues and we look forward to working with the Federal Government on this process.”

The new health taskforce, set up by the government on April 9, is to provide a blueprint for dealing with obesity, smoking and binge drinking worries, with submissions from the industry to be requested at a future date. Additionally, there has also been an ongoing inquiry in the House of Representatives with regard to the obesity epidemic, with submissions and hearings already completed.

Concern about legislation going too far has since led to a warning from the Australian Food and Grocery Council that manufacturers may leave Australian shores. The AFGC suggested that, with the increased competitiveness in the global food industry, any legislation changes may reduce the image of Australia as a lucrative market. “As global economic and trade developments continue to test the competitiveness of Australian industry, transnational businesses are under increasing pressure to justify Australia as a strategic location for corporate production, irrespective of whether they are Australian or foreign owned,” the AFGC stated. “In an increasingly globalised economy, the ability of companies to internationalise their operations is as significant as their ability to trade globally.”

The AFGC has disputed calls for a traffic light system citing fears it is a scientifically-flawed concept that misrepresents healthy eating advice and believe it will not achieve its’ purpose.

Divisions as to who is to blame for the obesity epidemic are clear, with some bemoaning a lack of education and the culture of Australian society, others food manufacturers and retailers, while marketers are also held responsible by some. With such divisions it is hard to ascertain exactly what the government will do to deal with the issue but, in the wake of the reports from the health taskforce and House of Representatives inquiry, expect changes which will impact on some members of the food industry.

Minister Roxon has indicated legislation to tackle the problems will be established within a year. “We expect to have a full comprehensive strategy in place by the middle of next year,” she said last week.