36 health groups: federal government, you need to do more on obesity

Key recommendations to prevent deaths and ease health costs.

A 20% tax on sugary drinks, restrictions on junk food advertising and the mandatory use of health star ratings are among the actions being demanded of the federal government by a band of 36 health organisations.

The eight actions, detailed by community, public health, medical and academic groups in a joint report titled Tipping the scales (download pdf), are said to be necessary to fight the multi-billion dollar Australian obesity epidemic.

The most recent figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics suggest 63% of adults are above a healthy weight, and 27% of children are classified as obese.

"As far as the burden of disease," the report begins, "the combined burden of diet and weight are now greater than that posed by tobacco smoking."

The eight asks were defined over a two-year period, under the leadership of the Obesity Policy Coalition and the Global Obesity Centre of Deakin University, and in consultation with 34 other organisations that include the Heart Foundation, Cancer Council, Diabetes Australia and CHOICE, to name but a few.

The actions would help relieve the symptomatic costs of dealing with the obesity epidemic, such as general practitioner services, hospital care, absenteeism and government subsidies. The cost was estimated to be $8.6 billion, according to the most recent figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics.

"When you look at our environment – our kids are bombarded with advertising for junk food, high-sugar drinks are cheaper than water, and sugar and saturated fat are hiding in so-called 'healthy' foods," says Jane Martin, executive manager of the Obesity Policy Coalition.

"Australia still has no strategy to tackle our obesity problem. Without action, the costs of obesity and poor diet to society will only continue to spiral upwards."

A plan to tackle obesity

A tax on sugary drinks is suggested in an effort to meet recommended sugar intakes set by the World Health Organisation, which half of all Australians exceed.

"A levy on sugary drinks that raises prices by 20% is likely to significantly reduce consumption, resulting in clear health benefits and contributing to the reduction of chronic disease in Australia," the report says.

Did you know: In Australia, food labels will only tell you the total sugar in a product, not the added stuff? Tell ministers that you want added sugars to be clearly labelled.

The government is also being asked to restrict the advertising of junk food targeting children. The restrictions would apply to free-to-air television stations between the primetime hours of 5.30pm to 9.30pm.

"Over the course of a year, the average Australian child will see 35 hours of food advertising on television, of which over half will be for unhealthy foods," the report says.

"Children are particularly vulnerable to advertising as a child's capacity to comprehend and critically interpret advertising messages develops over time."

The groups are also asking for the controversial health star rating system to be made mandatory by July 2019. The standard, which is intended to help shoppers make healthy decisions quickly, was introduced as a voluntary system in June 2014.

CHOICE supports the the health star system but wants to see five key improvements made. Find out more and support our campaign.

Failing to address the obesity problem will have real-world implications, says Anna Peeters, a professor in public health at Deakin University.

"Obesity poses such an immense threat to Australia's physical and economic health that it needs its own, standalone prevention strategy if progress is to be made.

"If current trends continue, there will be approximately 1.75 million deaths in people over the age of 20 years caused by diseases linked to overweight and obesity, such as type 2 diabetes, cancer and heart disease, between 2011 and 2050."

The 36 groups are calling on the federal government to integrate the following eight actions as part of a long-term, coordinated approach:

  1. Time-based restrictions on TV junk food advertising to kids
  2. Set clear food reformulation targets
  3. Make the Health Star Rating mandatory by July 2019
  4. Develop a national active transport strategy
  5. Fund weight-related public education campaigns
  6. Introduce a 20% health levy on sugary drinks
  7. Establish a national obesity taskforce
  8. Develop and monitor national diet, physical activity and weight guidelines