Lawmakers must do to junk food what they did to tobacco

By RJ Whitehead

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Food industry Nutrition

Lawmakers must do to junk food what they did to tobacco
One Australian public health heavyweight has gone on the record to say that it is up to the federal government to tackle the junk food industry the same way it took on tobacco.

The comments by the former chairman of the Preventative Health Taskforce, Professor Rob Moodie, come shortly after new figures showing that two-thirds of Australians are overweight or obese.

[The government] has to take on the food industry, which is a giant industry in itself. It has to take on the advertisers and the PR industry. It also has to take on the media themselves​,” Moodie told Australia’s ABC radio in a report to highlight the importance of the obesity report.

Children's obesity levels have plateaued at absolutely Everestian proportions. You know, this is not plateauing at Mount Donna Buang, this is plateauing at a very, very high level. Again Australia's the fifth fattest nation. Unless we can somehow change what's going on amongst our kids, let alone our adults, then we're in a really tough position​.”

Significant growth

According to the most wide-ranging survey ever undertaken by the Bureau of Statistics, the number of overweight or obese adults has climbed from just over half in 1995 to two-thirds—or 63 per cent—today. 

This translates to a weight gain of about 4kg per adult since the mid-'90s. The average Australian male now weighs 86kg and the average woman about 71kg. Today, 70% of men are either overweight or obese, and this figure spirals up to a staggering 80% among middle-aged men.

This weight increase comes despite years of government programmes promoting more exercise and fresh food, and working with the packaged food industry to reduce levels of fat, salt and sugar through voluntary codes. 

Those programs have failed, say public health experts, meaning it is time for regulation.

What [the government has] failed to do is bring in policies to reduce the obesigenic food environment​,” said Boyd Swinburn of Deakin University, advising lawmakers to restrict the marketing of junk foods to children, and to tailor fiscal policies to subsidise healthy foods. “That's where the failure is: not addressing the unhealthy food environment​.”

Not all agree

However, the grocery lobby has been quick to dismiss the figures, saying that childhood obesity, in particular, is not on the increase, and this proves that current voluntary programmes are working.

Policy should be based on the evidence, it should be based on the facts. And the facts are that childhood obesity is not increasing​,” Gary Dawson of the Australia Food and Grocery Council, told the ABC.

If you look overseas to where more direct intervention in the market has happened in advertising, it hasn't worked. And therefore we should be looking at the evidence and getting back to the facts, not opting for overly simplistic approaches​.”

Editor's note: Government measures against tobacco have been extremely successful in Australia, so why couldn't the same be done with junk food? Or is it right for the state to intercede in what is a free country, where citizens are at liberty to make their own choices? After all, tobacco produces second-hand smoke, whereas junk food is only harmful to the consumer. Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.

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1 comment

Junk Food isn't the bad guy by itself

Posted by Wendy Repovich,

Since the start of the rise in overweight and obesity there has been a perfect storm in place that we have not been able to stop. First and foremost is the dramatic changes in technology that have led to significant sedentary time. Who is going to be willing to give up all these things? Probably no one, so that has to be addressed.
Second, physical education became a second class subject in schools which has led to several different concerns: Not enough activity time during the school day; not enough of a curriculum to teach why it is important to remain active and eat right; and not enough curriculum teaching the skills needed to be competent in lifetime activities and healthy eating so it is possible for someone to be active after school is done and know how to eat for him or herself and a family later. For food, yes there has been an increase in the types of what you are calling junk food, but as I can tell you being from the state of Washington in the US, based on the various different lobbies, it will be almost impossible to make an effective definition of junk food - we have lots of wheat growers, so any candy which has flour in it cannot be called junk food. But back to the point, at the same time as junk foods have become more available, so have portion sizes increased. This means greater calorie intake no matter if it is the healthiest food, if you are taking in more calories than is needed (see the comments above about the decrease in physical activity) you will gain fat weight. In 2007 in a study reporting the relationship between BMI and all cause mortality, those with the lowest risk of death from lifestyle related diseases were those in the overweight category, so there isn't even a direct cause and effect relationship between weight and risk either except at the two extremes of underweight and extreme obesity or morbid obesity. Some suggestions for these results are those in the overweight group may have changed activity to benefit health, but are not doing enough to cause weight loss, those in the normal BMI might be "normal" because of dieting, but are not active enough for health. In essence we cannot generalize about BMI categories and health risk anymore. As was stated in the article where interventions have happened it hasn't made a significant difference, especially when the intervention focused on a single factor such as junk food - it was a very expensive proposition for little to no return. To summarize, we have to focus on education, but it must be comprehensive, and articulated between activity, eating, and health and wellness, and we will probably need to be willing to wait a generation for the change to take place - the fact that obesity rates are stable in schools may be an indication that we are having some success already.

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