The Victorian Government, like many others, is keen to instruct its citizens to change their eating habits in order to stop the weight gain which is going to cost health services so dearly in the future. But its own actions are anything but consistent.

I refer to what many public health experts describe as a “running sore” — the location of a McDonald’s outlet at the Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne.

As the British Medical Journal will report tomorrow, public health and cancer groups say it’s time to fix the sore — to end the association when the hospital moves to a new campus in 2011, a moment when, by coincidence, the current lease with McDonald’s is also due to expire.

They’re urging the Victorian Government to intervene rather leaving the decision up to the hospital board.

The Public Health Association of Australia’s president, Professor Mike Daube, says it is “grotesque” for a children’s hospital to be promoting junk food.

The Cancer Council Australia has also thrown its weight behind the campaign to end the association, which spokesman Terry Slevin says is sending “the wrong signal”.

And Professor Boyd Swinburn, professor of Population Health at Deakin University, says the hospital “should not be a party to promoting the world’s biggest icon brand of junk food”.

While RCH staff have mixed views (it’s not only patients and visitors who queue for the fries and burgers), Professor Mike South, one of the hospital’s senior paediatricians, says the current arrangement is sending an unhealthy message to the community.

“If Victorian public schools have banned the serving of fast food at schools, then the Children’s Hospital should be able to take the lead as well,” he said.

Hospital management is not commenting publicly, and the Victorian Department of Human Services is playing its cards close, saying that no decision has yet been made.

Health departments are fond of stressing the role of other departments, such as transport and urban planning, in tackling obesity. But if a health department can’t get its own house in order, then their admonitions to others — whether the general public or within government — just don’t carry the same weight.

Melissa Sweet is the author of The Big Fat Conspiracy: How to Protect Your Family’s Health (ABC Books, 2007)

Peter Fray

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