Issue 13 / 27 September 2010

THE LATEST call to increase the price of unhealthy foods by imposing a tax is one of the major recommendations of the Assessing Cost-Effectiveness in Prevention report (ACE).

Over a 5-year study period, 130 health experts assessed 123 preventive interventions to determine which prevent the most illness and premature deaths and which represent the best value for money.

The call to curb consumption of junk food is not new. It’s been identified often, by public health nutritionists and the medical profession.

The MJA published a paper in 2006 in which Professor Paul Zimmet, from the International Diabetes Institute in Melbourne, and Professor Philip James, from the International Obesity Taskforce, listed six steps to turn around the obesity epidemic.

The steps included taxing unhealthy processed foods and using the money to subsidise fresh foods, banning unhealthy foods (including drinks) from government buildings and schools, introducing traffic light labelling and banning marketing of food to children (including TV advertisements).

With overweight and obesity in Australia affecting two-thirds of men, half of women and a quarter of children, and with its consequent effect on the incidence of type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, certain cancers and problems such as osteoarthritis, we need to find a way to change our eating patterns.

“Educating” people about junk food is as ineffective as telling people not to smoke or to consume more than one or two standard drinks a day.

Millions of dollars spent on clever and compelling advertising that plays on the lack of time and skills in busy lives and appeals to children to use their “pester power” overwhelms any education efforts.

Australia has an enviable record on decreasing cigarette smoking.

When education about the dangers of smoking proved ineffective for most of the population, Australia banned cigarette advertising, increased prices with added taxes and made smoking “abnormal” by forcing smokers to go outside to smoke.

These strategies worked.

There is good evidence from policies introduced (and then removed) in the Northern Territory that differential taxes on full-strength and low alcohol beer and taxes on cask wine influenced total alcohol consumption and reduced the health burden.

So it’s entirely reasonable to expect that extra taxes on junk food would reduce consumption.

If we are to have any hope of reducing obesity, one step must involve changing people’s eating habits.

The dietary guidelines recommend strict limits on junk foods. Almost no-one follows them.

Let’s make it easier for our citizens to enjoy Australia’s delicious bounty of healthy foods by making it more difficult to eat junk.

It’s time for the government to follow the expert ACE report’s advice and add an extra tax for unhealthy foods.

Dr Rosemary Stanton OAM is a leading nutritionist with a science degree majoring in biochemistry and pharmaceutical chemistry, and post-graduate qualifications in Nutrition and Dietetics. In 2000, the University of Wollongong awarded her an honorary doctorate on the basis of her many publications. She is currently a Visiting Fellow in the School of Medicine at UNSW and a member of the NHMRC working group on the new dietary guidelines. She writes here as an individual and not a spokesperson for the NHMRC.


Posted 27 September 2010

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