The fight on fat gained momentum. “The blossoming of mono- and polyunsaturated oils, margarines and other products bearing ‘lite’, ‘less fat’ and ‘no-cholesterol ’ labels hasn’t dented our appetite for fat,” CHOICE declared. “The way ahead is signposted with even more ‘less fat’ products and fat substitutes.”
There were no such labels on the boxed chocolates we put to the taste test, comparing local and imported products. “Paul Keating may despair, but European chocolates won hands down – smooth and not as sweet as Australian chocolates.”
The growing use of water filters prompted us to test town water for nasties. “Our results suggest our water is in better health than some might expect,” we said, with no pesticides and minimal heavy metals.
Ten staff took our car, bike, bus and train Commuter Challenge from the North Shore in Sydney to our offices across the city. The train won. Our report railed against Australia’s “car-dependent city planning”.
Wasser difference? Yep, this was the headline for our report on non-carbonated bottled waters. We asked the Trade Practices Commission to investigate misleading health claims made by suppliers of bottled water.
“A brave new venture is coming to fruition,” announced managing editor Cathy Gray. “For the first time, CHOICE will have a newsagency presence in NSW communities from Bondi to Broken Hill.” The plan was to run the scheme out nationally.
Change was afoot in other ways. Because ACA was often confused with TV’ s A Current Affair, we began calling ourselves the Consumers’ Association in common usage.
Communications technology, too, was on the move. In “The Full Fax”, we tested 10 models under $1200. “For people working from home, faxes have made a revolutionary improvement in the way they do business. Others have found the technology useful for social communication.” And mobiles: “Not just a yuppie toy but an indispensable tool of the trade for people whose job requires mobility.” We conducted our first test of cellphones, with “bulky” a frequent gripe. Little wonder, when one weighed 670g and was 20cm long!
Optus arrived to shake up Telecom’s monopoly. Other changes included being able to buy your own phone, flexi-plans and lower STD and IDD prices.
Credit card fees were mooted. We argued consumers would be worse off – lower interest rates wouldn’t offset fees. “Despite our opposition, card issuers will soon be allowed to introduce fees for credit cards,” we lamented.
“Who would have thought it?”, we said, not easily surprised. CHOICE reported one in four beers sold in Australia was light-alcohol, a doubling over five years. We concluded the new-generation light beers, which were bitter and dark, were more palatable than earlier offerings.
And on the subject of vices, we revisited cigarettes, citing overseas studies that showed smokers of low-tar cigarettes compensated by drawing in more forcibly or taking more frequent puffs.
Alternative medicines were giving the more traditional medicines a run for their money. “In the US, in 1990, more visits were made to alternative therapists than to medical doctors … some people think it’s quackery, but a sizable and growing number are turning to alternative medicines for health care.”
“If you buy Australian, don’t assume Australian icons are made or owned here,” we warned, urging readers to buy only those local products that were competitive or superior in price, quality or durability to imported or foreign-owned brands. Meanwhile, our car reliability survey showed an improvement since the previous survey, with the biggest improvement in the local offerings.
Where’s the smart money now, we asked? In shares. “Because property is stagnant and interest rates on cash deposits are very low. If you have money to invest, only shares have the potential for significant growth.” The banks were not doing themselves any favours: “The Big Four are not delivering satisfactory customer service … they need to take a good hard look at their practices.”
Fast food companies sponsoring school activities? CHOICE said forget warm, fuzzy feelings: “We must not be na•ve about companies’ motives.”
“We’d like to think Australians are making healthier choices at the supermarket,” we wrote, but an analysis revealed Aussies were spending most of their money on cigarettes and soft drinks. Coke, Arnott’s biscuits, Longbeach and Winfield cigarettes topped the list.
We looked at “the financial advice game – four chambers, one bullet”. A few guinea pigs “found excellence; most found mediocrity and quite a few found trouble.” Some plans were “disturbing” and could even result in breaking the law.
On Australia Day, Pay TV, marketed as the “home entertainment revolution”, was launched. Galaxy kicked off with its 24-hour sports network, as Foxtel and Optusvision prepared to enter the market.
On a technological roll, we touted the Internet “as the next big thing.” But we warned: “It takes most people a while to learn how to use it effectively … (and) while there’s a lot of useful information ... there’s also a lot of unreliable and unchecked information.”
For our 35th birthday, we found the oldest CHOICE-recommended appliance still in daily use – Evelyn Yates’ Sunbeam Electric Automatic Frypan with original glass lid. It got the tick from us in August 1960.
We predicted the cashless society. “Hate filling your pockets with small change? You’ll love the convenience of a smart card ... Here’s the rundown on the new form of money that’s just around the corner.” Just like a phone card, we told readers, the stored-value cards could be linked to your bank account and topped up at an ATM or EFTPOS outlet.
“Genetic engineering is already being used to process our food,” ACA warned. “And soon the tomatoes and potatoes of the future could be hitting our tables. Do we know where it may lead – and how will we know what we’re buying?”
We examined lifetime guarantees and concluded they are meaningless. “Does it mean the product is guaranteed to last for … as long as it lasts?” “For a piece of meaningless double talk, it takes the cake,” added a subscriber. And some guarantees added this qualifying clause: “as long as it is used appropriately”.
“Coming across mysterious Internet addresses like firstname.lastname@example.org? If you’re feeling left out, it’s time to get ‘connected’,” we advised.
In September, we launched Computer CHOICE magazine, the technology sibling of CHOICE, published quarterly, subscription $32.
“It’s new, it sounds exciting and it’s very confusing – it’s home theatre.” We gave readers a sneak preview of something so new it wasn’t yet on sale – the digital video disc (DVD). “Even if the system finally comes onto the market, it will take years until it grows to similar prominence to videos today,” CHOICE prophesied.
The Heart Foundation’s Pick the Tick program got much less than a wholehearted tick from us. Manufacturers had to pay between $2000 and $50,000 a year to use it (depending on the product ’s yearly sales), so not all products eligible to carry the tick could do so.
We raised the alarm over ‘gene beans’ – genetically engineered soybeans that the food industry was importing to place in a huge array of processed foods, without telling consumers. CHOICE called for clear labelling of the products affected, from breads to ice creams.
We enlightened readers on the ins and outs of the GST, concluding older and poorer people will be likely to be worse off with a combo of GST and income tax cuts. “Unless you compensate a large number of Australians for the extra tax burden, it’s unfair to impose a GST.”
“Chardonnay: wine of the ’90s. Chardonnay has come out of nowhere to seize an extraordinary 37% of the white wine market. It may be everyone’s favourite blonde, but how good is it really, given its often high price?Ó We got merry tasting 89 chardonnays.
Some things never change. About 7500 subscribers filled in our bank questionnaire and some wrote us a letter, too. ÒThis is a record and shows what a hot issue banking is.”
In June, we launched www.choice.com.au “for those of you who have access to the Internet. Do you have something to say or a question someone else may have the answer to? Then send a message to our consumer forums.”
But our embrace of technology lead to a few hiccups, too. Our new computer system stumped subscribers when we mailed out the Jan/Feb issue with 0000 instead of the usual subscription expiry date.
Digital TV was on the horizon. “You can have a great picture on one channel or a bigger choice of TV stations on the same channel. Why didn’t anyone ask which we‘d prefer?”
We launched a perennial favourite for our readers, The Hard Word, on our back page. It’s still there.
Food poisoning paranoia prompted a rash of anti-bacterial varieties of cling wraps, soaps, cloths, cleaning liquids, liquid handwash, toothbrushes and even garbage bags! We said it was overkill – washing your hands would do the job just as well.
But one bigger bug was lurking in the background: “Y2K and you. Worried about no money, electricity or phone for a few days? Read on to see what is and isn’t likely to happen.” We reassured that “though the Millennium Bug may cause minor disruptions, there’s no cataclysmic scenario to worry about”.
High-tech created other headaches. “We’ve got email, e-commerce and e-credit. Now we have e-waste. Five million computers and six million mobile phones destined for landfill.”
Anti-oxidants and free radicals were the media buzz. “Do pills do the job? We’ll hear more hyped-up reports before we have all the answers.”
We told readers to head off to the fruit and veggie shop for plenty of anti-oxidant-rich foods, rather than the supplement shelf in the health store.
CHOICE annual subscriptions rose to $54 – due, we said, to higher production costs.