Most of Australia’s disease burden is driven by preventable risk factors, yet prevention is virtually nowhere to be seen in this election campaign — it is all hospital beds and GP Super Clinics. There are a few positive snippets being dropped into the prevention policy vacuum, but they are nowhere near enough.
The message on mental health seems to have got through to the parties, and Labor is to be congratulated for its stance on plain packaging of cigarettes, which will clearly be effective in reducing sales judging by the tobacco industry screams.
The Greens have traditionally given a priority to prevention and having Richard di Natale, with his public health background, leading the health initiatives is very positive.
But where are the plans to implement serious policies on obesity, alcohol and tobacco as outlined by the Preventative Health Taskforce?
The blueprint is there and the government has really missed a golden opportunity to show some leadership in prevention by grabbing the report with two hands and implementing its recommendations.
Regulations to restrict junk food marketing to children is the litmus test of commitment to prevention. The Greens have a clear policy to support it and if they achieve a balance in the Senate, this would be a critical piece of legislation for them to champion.
The Liberals, under Tony “individual choice” Abbott would allow the junk food corporations to continue to bombard Australian children with ever more sophisticated marketing techniques and place all the responsibility on parents to struggle to provide the counterweight.
His position when he was Health Minister was that government would not correct this obvious market failure and if more diabetes and disease was being caused by this obesogenic barrage from the food industry, then the health system would just have to pick up the pieces. Ever more beds seemed to be the solution.
The taskforce recommendations on junk food marketing regulations were much weaker than the public is calling for. In every poll taken on the issue, public support for regulations to ban junk food marketing to children is more than 90%. That is far higher public support for legislation than was seen for regulations for smoke-free environments when that legislation was first enacted.
The government’s response to the taskforce report has been disappointingly weak and piecemeal, with regulations on junk food marketing delayed until two more elections — which is essentially political infinity.
What this issue reflects is the increasingly and, frankly terrifying, influence of corporations in public policy. Their fingerprints (or boot prints) are everywhere — an abandoned ETS, a grossly watered down tax on mining super profits, a Prime Minister kicked out of office, watered down alcohol taxes, abandoned regulations to protect children from junk food marketing and so on.
Democracy has been pulled from the hands of citizens by the corporations, and a much wider reform is needed if we are going to get it back.
Election campaigns should be taxpayer-funded, political party donations should be much more transparent, lobbying should be more tightly restricted and transparent, there should be requirements on corporations for goals and reporting around social and environmental outcomes and processes as well as financial outcomes and processes.
In a book Garry Egger and I have just published (Planet Obesity, Allen and Unwin), we trace the causes of the causes of obesity back to its roots, and find that the economic and policy structures in place that put a premium on growth and consumption have resulted in a predictable set of corporate and individual responses towards over-consumption.
This is normal business and human behaviours, given the laws and mindsets we have created for modern, capitalist societies.
While economic growth is good to get poor countries onto the ladder of prosperity, further increases in growth give fewer and fewer dividends while the detrimental consequences start piling up. These include climate change, obesity, excess waste, loss of natural resources, diminished biodiversity and on and on.
We have two paths to take. One is to go the usual path that humans seem to take, which is to stay in denial until the overwhelming crisis occurs and which forces action — which at that stage may be too late. When climate change really bites, the first wars will probably be over food because a diminished food production for an increasing global population will create more desperate, starving people.
The second course is to act before the real crisis hits. That requires leadership, boldness, a big-picture vision, strength to stand up to corporate pressure and a premium placed on prevention policies.
But unfortunately, the two major political parties cannot seem to muster any prevention policies to save our health system, let alone the planet.
Our only hope is that the Greens get a sufficient balance of power that they force a greater vision and responsibility into our corporation-dominated political system.
*Boyd Swinburn is director, WHO Collaborating Centre for Obesity Prevention at Deakin University