Last week, I had my say in Crikey about the House of Reps Standing Committee on Health and Ageing’s report on obesity. I was concerned that it focused so much on treatment and didn’t put a stronger emphasis on prevention. 

Professor Boyd Swinburn, professor of population health at Deakin University and Director of the WHO Collaborating Centre for Obesity Prevention, has sent in the following critique of the report:

“The Parliamentary Inquiry on Obesity served up a largely evidence-free set of weak recommendations for obesity prevention.  The Committee took a feather duster approach to the prevention part of their brief, lightly touching all options without disturbing the status quo.  They dismissed the mountain of direct and indirect evidence that marketing increases junk food consumption and obesity and instead plumped for two programs which cost hundreds of millions of dollars and have no evidence for any effect on reducing obesity.

Indeed, the Active After School Communities program and the Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Gardens are not even aimed at reducing childhood obesity.  Their websites claim that the AASC ‘aims to engage traditionally non-active children in structured physical activities and to build pathways with local community organisations, including sporting clubs’ and ‘The aim of the Kitchen Garden Program is pleasurable food education for young children’.  Excellent programs at achieving their aims, no doubt, but in no way should they form the backbone of programs to turn around the serious problem of childhood obesity.

Add to that the solid backing the Committee gave to education, information and social marketing approaches and you have a full house of photo opportunities and weak strategies.

The Committee did not seem to get the point that obesity is not a knowledge deficit disorder which can be solved with a bit of information. Leaving the obesogenic environments to a few guidelines and industry self-regulation is a recipe for the continuing upward trend in Australian fatness.

But the public get the point.  They understand.  They are not taken in by the ‘pull-up-your-socks’ solutions (led by the former Health Minister Tony Abbott), or the ‘public-health-advocates-are-baddies’ cries (led by conservative think tankers like Chris Berg), or the ‘trustworthy-food-industry-is-making-big-changes’ claims (led by the Australian Food and Grocery Council).

The public are not that stupid.  Opinion polls consistently show that 80-90% of the public want stronger restrictions to cut the amount of junk food advertising seen by children.  This level of support far exceeds the support for bans on tobacco advertising when that legislation was being drawn up.

It is time for the politicians to look at the evidence, listen to the people and do something meaningful about obesity prevention, especially childhood obesity.

‘Marketing works’.  These are the first words of the US Institute of Medicine’s comprehensive review of the evidence on junk food marketing to children.  Indeed, the global food industry would not be spending $10 billion annually on marketing targeting children if it was not getting increased sales for its money.  They are very smart people working in a highly competitive industry with all the evidence of the effects of their marketing campaigns on sales at their finger tips. They make hard-nosed, evidence-based decisions and they keep investing.  Big time. This is strong indirect evidence of the effects of marketing on consumption even though we never get to see the raw data.

The other part of the evidence chain that links junk food marketing to obesity is the incontrovertible evidence that diets high in junk food put children at risk of unhealthy weight gain.

Aside from the piles of evidence reviews on the topic, it is also question of ethics and children’s rights.  In an age of burgeoning childhood obesity, to allow multinational companies to continually bombard children with sophisticated marketing techniques to get them to pester their parents to buy them the very foods that promote obesity is downright unethical.

We may not see junk food marketing as an ethical issue in 2009 because is just the cultural wallpaper all around us.  Remember, we used to live and work in rooms filled with tobacco smoke and thought it was just normal.

However, in 2019, or maybe 2029 if we continue along this slow route to action, we will look back and wonder in disbelief at lack of leadership shown by our current politicians as they tip toe around with their feather dusters, avoiding the piles of evidence, deaf to the public, but kowtowing to the demands of the food industry.”