National Obesity Taskforce
3.27 The committee recommends the establishment of a National
Obesity Taskforce, comprising representatives across all knowledge sectors from
federal, state, and local government, and alongside stakeholders from the NGO,
private sectors and community members. The Taskforce should sit within the
Commonwealth Department of Health and be responsible for all aspects of
government policy direction, implementation and the management of funding
The Senators oppose the establishment of a National Obesity Taskforce
within the Commonwealth Department of Health. The Chair's report recommends the
establishment and operation of a National Obesity Taskforce in a number of its
recommendations (3, 4, 14, 15, 18, 19, 20), within the Department of Health. This
is a structural solution rather than a strategic one and it is unclear how
adding another layer of bureaucracy will lead to better addressing obesity policy
issues. The report could have recommended a review of the current
administrative arrangements applying to identify if existing arrangements can
be improved to make them more effective and efficient.
The Senators support a broad, multi-strategy approach to tackling
obesity, but they do not support the establishment of a taskforce to sit within
the Commonwealth Department of Health.
At the COAG Health Council (CHC) meeting of 12 October 2018, Senator the
Hon Bridget McKenzie, the then Minister for Rural Health, sought agreement from
members for the Commonwealth to lead the development of a National Obesity
Strategy through the Australian Health Minister’s Advisory Council (AHMAC), and
proposed that an Obesity Summit be held as the first phase of its development.
This summit will take place in 2019.
Health Star rating System
4.98 The committee recommends the Minister for Rural
Health promote to the Australia and New Zealand Ministerial Forum on Food
Regulation the adoption of the following changes to the current Health Star
- The Health Star Rating Calculator be modified
to address inconsistencies in the calculation of ratings in relation to:
- foods high in sugar, sodium and saturated
- the current treatment of added sugar;
- the current treatment of fruit juices;
- the current treatment of unprocessed fruit
and vegetables; and
- the 'as prepared' rules.
- Representatives of the food and beverage
industry sectors may be consulted for technical advice but no longer sit on the
HSR Calculator Technical Advisory Group.
- The Health Star Rating system be made
mandatory by 2020.
The Senators oppose Recommendation 6. The Health Star Rating system
(HSR) is currently undergoing a comprehensive review process conducted by MP
Consulting. This review is ongoing with submissions closing 7 December 2018. It
is not advisable to speculate on certain aspects of the calculator while that
review is underway. The Senators further note that the food and beverage
industry has played an important role in developing the HSR system and is well
placed to provide technical input into the HSR.
The Senators also oppose making the HSR system a mandatory scheme. The
voluntary uptake of the HSR by industry has been strong. The HSR is featured on
over 10 000 products and the system is internationally renowned. Currently, the HSR is undergoing its largest review since its inception, and it
is important that the review proceeds without political interference. The HSR should
not be made mandatory until all calculations involved in the operations of the
HSR have been thoroughly assessed and further consultations undertaken.
Moreover, any changes to make a 5 star rating increasingly harder to achieve represents
a constant shifting of the goal posts, discouraging industry from important
reformulation progress and sending confusing messages to consumers. This may
undermine the HSR system by decreasing consumer trust.
Tax on sugar-sweetened beverages
6.31 The committee recommends the Australian Government
introduce a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages, with the objectives of reducing
consumption, improving public health and accelerating the reformulation of
The Senators do not support the introduction of a tax on sugar-sweetened
beverages. There is insufficient evidence that sugar-sweetened beverage taxes
are effective in reducing obesity. No witnesses who appeared before the inquiry
could point to any jurisdiction in the world where the introduction of a sugar
tax led to a fall in obesity rates. Research by the McKinsey Global Institute undertaken
in 2014 in the United Kingdom examined 16 popularised options for obesity
prevention and found that portion control, product reformulation and consumer
education were consistently in the top five for effectiveness (see Graph 1). Graph
1 shows that the tax on sugar ranked 13 on the list and was found to be one of
the least effective options for obesity prevention.
Graph 1: Cost-effectiveness and impact of obesity levers,
Source: McKinsey&Company, Overcoming obesity: An initial economic analysis, 2014
The research undertaken by the McKinsey Global Institute also shows that
a sugar tax attracts disproportionate amount of media attention despite ranking
poorly as a mechanism to counter or improve obesity rates (See Graph 2). This demonstrates
that the continued focus on a sugar tax is political, rather than policy based
on evidence. This skewed focus detracts from interventions that have a
measurable impact demonstrated by the McKinsey report such as portion control,
balanced access to discretionary foods and education programs.
Graph 2: High-impact intervention areas are receiving
less media and public focus, United Kingdom
Source: McKinsey&Company, Overcoming obesity: An initial economic analysis, 2014
More recently, in 2017, both the Menzies Research Centre and the New
Zealand Institute of Economic Research conducted a review of a series of papers
in favour of the introduction of a tax on sugary drinks to see if a case could
be made for a sugar tax. Both reviews concluded that a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages
lacks evidence for reducing obesity levels and improving health outcomes. The Menzies Research Centre report also pointed out that a sugar tax is likely
to be regressive as it would disproportionally affect low-income households.
This is because low-income households spend relatively more on soft drinks as a
share of their average weekly expenditure.
Furthermore, a New Zealand Treasury paper published in 2016 noted that
numerous studies found highly price sensitive consumers are more likely to
switch to non-taxed and unhealthy substitute products, negating any potential
health improvements from a soft drink tax.
The Senators also note the recent United Nations General Assembly
Declaration on Non-communicable diseases, adopted on 10 October 2018 that does
not endorse taxes on discretionary foods as a means by which to tackle
non-communicable diseases caused by tobacco use, harmful use of alcohol,
unhealthy diets and physical inactivity. The Declaration supports the
implementation of cost-effective and evidence-based interventions to halt the
rise of overweight and obesity.
The Senators note that the committee received compelling evidence about
the ineffectiveness and the negative impacts of the taxes on sugar and
unhealthy foods that have been introduced in other countries. For example, in 2011, Denmark introduced a 'fat tax' in an attempt to limit
population's intake of unhealthy foods. The tax was scrapped twelve months
later and the Danish government quickly cancelled its plans to introduce a
sugar tax. According to the Danish government, the tax was abolished because of
increased prices for consumers, increased administrative costs for producers
and retailers, and because it put jobs at risk. Additionally, the tax failed in
reducing consumption of unhealthy foods. Mexico introduced a soft drink tax in 2014 and the results have been similarly
counterproductive. Indeed, sales of taxed products declined initially when the
tax was introduced, only to rebound to pre-tax levels and show growth
thereafter. The tax had no effect on reducing consumption or reducing obesity. Lastly, the Mexico experience demonstrates that the burden of taxation is
mostly carried by those who can least afford the financial impost. Indeed, in
2014, 63.7 percent of the tax was collected from the lowest socio-economic
As described in Chapter 3 of the report, the causes of obesity are
myriad, as are the impacts, and the potential solutions. Therefore, we must
approach obesity through a multifaceted approach. The Senators believe that
introducing a tax or other punitive measures are paternalistic as it implies
that people cannot be trusted to make healthier food choices by themselves.
The established narrative also oversimplifies and obfuscates the causes
of obesity. The Senators further note that international experts are becoming
increasingly frustrated with “siloed” approaches to tackling obesity related
health issues in the community. In the October 2018 Edition of The Lancet, 18
experts from across the globe stated:
The continued temptation to chase easy wins and focus on
single polices in silos, such as school programs or taxes, rather than
addressing the wider obesogenic environment and other drivers of obesity will
mean countries continue to fail to protect their citizens from the harm caused
We also must be careful about not further stigmatising people who are
overweight and obese (see Chapter 2 of the report). The Senators believes that
introducing a tax or other punitive measures contribute directly to reinforcing
the stigma of obesity as it implies that people cannot be trusted to make
healthier food choices by themselves.
Based on the evidence, the Senators are of the view that the case for
government intervention is extremely weak. Regressive taxes that stigmatise
and patronise individuals, harm businesses and risk jobs are not the solution
to tackle obesity.
Marketing and advertising of discretionary food
7.44 The committee recommends that, as part of the 2019
annual review of the Commercial Television Industry Code of Practice, Free TV
Australia introduce restrictions on discretionary food and drink advertising on
free-to-air television until 9.00pm.
7.45 The committee recommends that the Australian Government
consider introducing legislation to restrict discretionary food and drink
advertising on free-to-air television until 9.00pm if these restrictions are
not voluntary introduced by Free TV Australia by 2020.
The Senators do not support introducing legislation to restrict discretionary
food and drink advertising on free-to-air television until 9.00pm. Australia
currently has in place a stringent and effective self-regulatory system for
regulating the content of food and non-alcoholic beverage advertising,
including advertising to children. The Senators believes that self-regulation provides a robust, transparent and
effective way for advertisers to engage with consumers and to respond to
consumer's concerns about advertising. There is no need for government to
intervene or legislate.
The Senators note that the research undertaken by the McKinsey Global
Institute has found that there is limited evidence for behaviour change through
media restrictions. Graph 1 shows that introducing media restrictions would
have a negligible impact on obesity prevention.
Furthermore, research shows that there is no causal relationship between
responsible advertising and harmful consumption of food and beverage products. Work undertaken by the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA)
also found the contribution of television advertising to obesity appears
inconclusive and that public health literature points to a range of
multi-factorial contributors to obesity, including hereditary, environmental,
social and cultural factors.
Finally, the Senators are of the view that restricting advertising on
free-to-air television disproportionally impacts this platform as other
platforms, including paid platforms and YouTube, would not be impacted by such
restrictions. With children now predominantly watching content on platforms
like YouTube, further regulating free-to-air television, would not only reduce
the revenue available to fund Australian services, but would also fail to
achieve the policy intent.
Senator Peter Georgiou
for Western Australia
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