Tipping the scales in favour of action on obesity

Thirty-four leading community, public health, medical and academic groups have joined the call for urgent Federal Government action to address Australia’s serious obesity problem.

As rising obesity and poor diets continue to strain the nation’s physical and economic health, a new action plan has identified eight practical and evidence-based actions the Federal Government must take to help fix the problem.

The suite of policy recommendations endorsed by all 34 organisations was launched today at the Monash Medical Centre in Melbourne.

Led by Deakin University’s Global Obesity Centre (GLOBE) and the Obesity Policy Coalition (OPC), “Tipping the Scales” draws on national and international recommendations to highlight where action is required.

The eight actions are:

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 per cent health levy on sugary drinks
7. Establish a national obesity taskforce
8. Develop and monitor national diet, physical activity and weight guidelines.

Deakin’s Professor of Epidemiology and Equity in Public Health at Deakin and head of GLOBE’s Epidemiology unit, Anna Peeters, said the actions represented, for the first time ever, national consensus from the groups behind the report, who refused to let governments sit back and watch as growing numbers of Australians developed life-threatening weight and diet-related health problems.

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

“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, yet there is no such coherent, funded and sustained government strategy.”

Action on obesity

OPC Executive Manager Jane Martin said the eight definitive policy actions in “Tipping the Scales” addressed the elements of Australia’s environment which set individuals and families up for unhealthy lifestyles, rather than just focusing on treating the poor health outcomes associated with obesity.

“Sixty-three per cent of Australian adults and 27 per cent of our children are overweight or obese. This is not surprising 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. Making a healthy choice has never been more difficult,” she said.

“According to Obesity Australia, the annual cost of overweight and obesity in Australia in 2011-12 was estimated to be $8.6 billion in direct and indirect costs such as GP services, hospital care, absenteeism and government subsidies. But Australia still has no strategy to tackle our obesity problem. It just doesn’t make sense.

“Without action, the costs of obesity and poor diet to society will only continue to spiral upwards. The policies we have set out to tackle obesity therefore aim to not only reduce morbidity and mortality, but also improve wellbeing, bring vital benefits to the economy and set Australians up for a healthier future.”

Professor Peeters said a lack of consensus from leading academic, health and medical groups had been a key barrier to developing a national policy approach to obesity prevention.

[testimonial_text]There was a real need to develop a national consensus so we could present the government with a set of agreed specific, effective and feasible national obesity prevention policy recommendations.[/testimonial_text]
[testimonial_picture name=”Professor Anna Peeters” details=”Head of GLOBE Epidemiology Unit”]
Professor Anna Peeters[/testimonial_picture]

“The eight actions have been drawn from the many national and international recommendations on obesity prevention and represent the most critical and urgent components of a national obesity prevention strategy,” she explained.

“This broad and agreed platform can help overcome the perception of differing views by stakeholders on the potential points for government intervention. That we have public health, medical, scientific and advocacy bodies involved shows that the need for these actions is really recognised across the board.

“We hope the government will act on this need for a coherent response and develop a national action plan that includes these policy actions.

“There are policies which have been proven to work in other parts of the world, and have the potential to work here, but they need to be implemented as part of a comprehensive approach by governments and they need to be implemented now.”

Professor Peeters said one such policy was a sugary drinks tax like those already implemented in Mexico and Hungary. Research has shown the tax has reduced consumption of sugary drinks in both countries.

The results of a recent trial study by GLOBE researchers at a convenience store within Melbourne’s Alfred Hospital, which increased the cost of sugary drinks by 20 per cent, appear to support this.

Sales of sugary drinks dropped by 27.6 per cent by the final week of the 17 week trial, while sales of water increased by almost the same amount.

“The tide is definitely turning internationally, and that helps us to advocate more strongly for obesity prevention strategies and present the evidence behind them,” Professor Peeters said.

Professor Peeters and Ms Martin initiated “Tipping the Scales” two years ago, convening an expert advisory group of public health professionals from a range of organisations, including Deakin’s Institute for Physical Activity and Nutrition (IPAN).

Action on obesity

The group reviewed existing literature on obesity to identify key national and international statements on obesity prevention, before synthesising and collating the reports in order to identify key policy areas and specific, evidence-based potential actions by government that were relevant to the Australian context.

“This evidence included case studies of implementation feasibility, real world and experimental evidence of effectiveness and modelled evidence of cost-effectiveness,” Professor Peeters said.

“We then asked each member of the advisory group to prioritise each broad policy area and rank specific policy actions within them based on their perceived importance – including need, likely impact and cost-effectiveness – and achievability – including feasibility, political attractiveness and sustainability. The group members were encouraged to consult broadly across their represented organisations and networks in order to develop the final list of actions.

“The intention was to deliver a rigorous and evidence-based agenda to our Federal Government to establish key elements to include in a national strategy and an ongoing dialogue about the best ways to address the obesity epidemic.

“While the focus of this consensus is the federal government, there is scope for state and territory governments to address some of these areas where they have jurisdiction.”

The calls to action outlined in Tipping the Scales are endorsed by the following 34 organisations:

Australian Chronic Disease Prevention Alliance (which includes the Heart Foundation, Cancer Council Australia, Kidney Health Australia, Diabetes Australia and the Stroke Foundation), Australian Health Policy Collaboration (AHPC), Australian Medical Students’ Association (AMSA), Australian and New Zealand Obesity Society (ANZOS), Australasian Society of Lifestyle Medicine, Baker Heart and Diabetes Institute, Consumers Health Forum of Australia, GLOBE, IPAN, Monash Centre for Health, Research and Implementation (MCHRI), LiveLighter, Menzies School of Health Research, The University of Melbourne’s Melbourne School of Population and Global Health, Melbourne Children’s (which includes The Royal Children’s Hospital Melbourne, Murdoch Children’s Research Institute and the University of Melbourne), the National Rural Health Alliance Inc., Nutrition Australia, Obesity Australia, OPC, Obesity Surgery Society of Australia and New Zealand, Parents’ Voice, Public Health Association of Australia and Sugar By Half.

Read more about “Tipping the Scales” at

Published by Deakin Research on 19 September 2017

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