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Prevention key to contain costs

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The nation is “going backwards” in tackling its obesity problem and facing a blowout in health care costs unless it ramps up its health prevention efforts, AMA President Dr Michael Gannon has warned.

Reiterating the AMA’s support for a sugar tax as part of a range of measures to promote healthier eating, Dr Gannon said it was not about “demonising” particular foods like Coca Cola or McDonald’s but a much broader approach to help people make more informed choices and help them live more active lives.

The AMA President said that a sugar tax, on its own, would not “fix the problem”.

“Too often…we hear the demonisation of Coca-Cola, we see the demonisation of McDonald’s, when people make bad decisions about the food they put in their mouth every day, the food that they buy from supermarkets, the fact that we all eat so much processed foods,” Dr Gannon told the National Press Club.

“We can’t just have a simple idea that this is the one solution. We need a whole-of-government, whole-of-society approach investing in public health campaigns, thinking about sport and recreation, thinking about how we design our suburbs, looking at traffic-light systems for healthy foods, investing in some really decent public health campaigns so that people…are making informed choices.”

Dr Gannon said the burden of health costs was being largely driven by patients being hospitalised for preventable health problems like obesity, and there needed to be much greater investment in public health campaigns to improve individual wellbeing and hold down the nation’s health bill.

“We are going backwards in addressing obesity, and the effects are felt in almost every area of the health system,” where morbidly obese patients are much more difficult and expensive to treat, he said.

To help contain this cost in the long term, Dr Gannon said the Government should lift its investment in preventive health.

He said health literacy levels were low, and every day people were making bad choices about what they ate, drink and did that would have consequences for their own health and for demand for health care.

“Preventive health is not about implementing a ‘nanny state’ or taking away people’s ‘choices’,” Dr Gannon said. “There are not enough public health campaigns and we continue to fund, at tremendous expense, the consequences of failures to prevent chronic health conditions.”

The AMA President told the National Press Club that Australia’s spending on preventive health was woefully inadequate. Just 1.7 per cent of all health spending in 2011-12 went on health prevention, compared with 7 per cent in New Zealand and 6 per cent in Canada.

He said the success of action to curb smoking, including increased taxes, marketing restrictions, no smoking rules and tobacco plain packaging laws, showed what could be achieved, and it was time alcohol was taken out of the ‘too hard’ basket.

Adrian Rollins