Australia’s public health establishment doesn’t lack ideas. Another official report into preventative health brings another few dozen recommended regulations, subsidies, cries for greater ‘public awareness’ and demands for further (commissioned) research.

This latest edition is the result of the Senate Inquiry into Obesity in Australia put out yesterday in order to avoid being completely overshadowed by the release of a National Preventative Health Strategy that should come out sometime this month.

The committee’s proposals are predictable. Limiting — with a view to banning — advertising of junk food to children. Subsidising gym memberships. Even more food labelling. Regulating stupid diet programs. Encouraging urban planners to deliberately design cities that are inconvenient to drive in. We’ve been hearing these ideas for years.

Unfortunately, while public health advocates may talk big on ‘evidence-based’ policy, their recommendations almost always fall well below that standard.

Take the popular claim that junk food advertising is causing fat kids. The evidence just isn’t there. The federal government’s peak communications research body, the Australian Communications and Media Authority, has concluded that it is near impossible to parse out the relationship between advertising and childhood obesity. At best, advertising could account for 2% of food choice.

And the fuzziness of the relationship is clearly reflected in the academic literature: “Despite media claims to the contrary, there is no good evidence that advertising has a substantial influence on children’s food consumption and, consequently, no reason to believe that a complete ban on advertising would have any useful impact on childhood obesity rates.”

Yet despite this almost complete lack of evidence — which was acknowledged in the committee’s public hearings — the committee’s report just recommends more stringent regulations on advertising, and, of course, more research. And the Senate was actually quite conservative compared to the waves of doctors and public health activists who participated in the inquiry, agitating for every sort of ban and regulation on marketing to children they could think of.

So why such a casual approach to the use of evidence in developing effective public policy, from an industry that prides itself on the close scrutiny of evidence as it affects medical outcomes? Regulation might not be a science, but does nevertheless require careful attention to cost-benefit analysis, and some analysis of efficacy and efficiency. And then governments need to consider the philosophical implications of many regulations — how it relates to responsibility and choice, and who will bear the brunt of the costs.

But as we wait for the Preventative Health Taskforce to lodge its report, we’re still seeing no signs that these issues are really being considered.

Chris Berg is a Research Fellow with the Institute of Public Affairs.

Peter Fray

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