The long overdue National Obesity Strategy has been released to a wave of criticism from experts saying it lacks clear direction and offers only unfunded piecemeal approaches that will not bring about meaningful changes in obesity levels.
The document claims to offer “an ambitious 10-year framework for action to prevent and reduce overweight and obesity in Australia,” through guidance aimed at state governments and other stakeholders.
But obesity researchers say the strategy seems to be based on providing information to persuade individuals to take personal responsibility for reducing obesity and it has no clear program to tackle key issues such as food industry advertising or the socioeconomic determinants of obesity.
Professor Bruce Neal, Executive Director of The George Institute Australia said the strategy offered little new and had a long way to go in terms of putting its suggested approaches into practice.
“A ‘business as usual’ approach will see ‘obesity as usual’ in 2032. The Strategy sets out great ambitions but urgently needs an implementation plan to match,” he said.
“Current policy approaches are still focussed on how the individual needs to change – not how to improve the places where people live and make the easy choice the healthy choice. We will not succeed in addressing obesity until government tackles the commercial entities pushing unhealthy products into our communities.”
“We need to see a real change in focus when it comes to implementation for the Strategy to be effective. Education, information and voluntary industry programs are not going to cut it and will be a waste of everyone’s time and money. For real impact government will have to bite the bullet and implement mandatory restrictions on marketing to children, taxes on unhealthy foods like sugary drinks and transparent labelling of the nutritional quality of foods.”
Dr Michelle Jones a social researcher at Flinders University, Adelaide said the National Obesity Strategy lacked many key features of successful anti-obesity programs such as OPAL (Obesity Prevention and Lifestyle).
“With OPAL, there was an existing model the Australian government could have implemented and made a commitment to funding to ensure its longevity but instead we get a piecemeal approach and no clear understanding of who will coordinate the strategy and who will pay for it,” she said.
Dr Jones also highlighted the Strategy’s over reliance on individual responsibility and a lack of legislation that would help bridge the advertising divide between big fast food manufacturers and local food suppliers.
“Obesity prevention is not as simple as telling people to lose weight or get out and exercise. This ignores the socio-economic factors that underpin people’s health and underestimates the impact of the advertising industry and its ability to influence people’s choices,” she said.
“We currently have big food companies, especially fast food, able to advertise at any time of day and target children and at the same time representatives of fruit and vegetable growers can’t match this advertising buying power; this imbalance could be changed through legislation, rather than hopeful thinking.
Dr Sandro Demaio, CEO of VicHealth said the national strategy was a promising step forward, but it put too much responsibility on individuals and not enough on the food industry that spends more than $550 million in advertising.
“Pushing the onus back onto everyday Australians and relying on behaviour change is simply not going to move the needle,” he said.
“Most of us try to eat healthy foods as much as possible, but being surrounded by unhealthy food products and marketing undermines people’s efforts to maintain a healthy diet. Unhealthy food is easy to find, eat and buy and we’re bombarded by advertising every day.”