Upcoming event: the 2019 Food Governance Conference


Sydney Health Law is hosting the second Food Governance Conference from the 3rd to the 5th of July this year.

The Conference is a collaboration between Sydney Law School, the University’s Charles Perkins Centre and The George Institute for Global Health. The 2019 Conference will explore how law, policy, and regulation address (or contribute to) food system challenges such as sustainability, equity and social justice in global food systems, and malnutrition, obesity, and diet-related diseases.

The Conference will open on the 3rd of July with a public oration by the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Professor Hilal Elver. Also speaking will be Ronni Kahn, the founder of Ozharvest, and Mellissa Wood, General Manager, Global Programs at the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research. You can register for this free event here.

The main days of the Conference will take place at Sydney Law School on the 4th and 5th of July. Keynote speakers at the Conference include Professor Amandine Garde, Director of the Law and Non-Communicable Diseases Unit at the University of Liverpool, and Dr Juan Rivera, Director of Mexico’s National Institute of Public Health.

Further information about the Conference, including the draft program, can be found here.


Regulation of alcohol advertising is failing Australia’s young people: new research on the ABAC Code


Exposure to alcohol advertising influences the likelihood that young people will begin drinking, that those already drinking will increase their intake, or engage in risky drinking. Accordingly, the World Health Organization calls for regulation that reduces the impact of alcohol marketing on young people, including by addressing the content and volume of marketing, as well as sponsorship activities that promote alcoholic beverages. The WHO also recommends developing effective administrative and deterrence systems for infringements of marketing restrictions.

The main source of alcohol marketing regulation in Australia is the ABAC Responsible Alcohol Marketing Code, an industry-based code containing a series of standards on responsible alcohol advertising. These include a prohibition on advertising that has strong or evident appeal to minors, as well as new rules that aim to prevent alcohol ads from being directed to minors. These rules require advertisers to use age restriction controls where available, place marketing only in media with an audience of at least 75% adults, and ensure that marketing is not placed in programs or other media content designed for children (based on its story line, themes, music, and so forth).

The ABAC Scheme is administered by a Management Committee which includes four representatives from alcohol and advertising industry bodies, as well as a government representative and an independent chair. Public complaints can be made to the ABAC Adjudication Panel, comprising a chief adjudicator with legal expertise, a public health representative, and a broadcasting industry representative.

My study examined whether the ABAC Scheme contained the components of an effective regulatory scheme, focusing specifically on the rules concerned with minors. In other words,  did the ABAC follow the WHO’s recommendations for reducing the impact of alcohol marketing on minors?

I found that there were significant gaps and limitations in the ABAC, both in its substantive rules and in the processes of administration, monitoring, and enforcement created by the code.

These gaps include the exclusion of some media channels and promotional techniques such as cinema advertising and more importantly, sponsorship arrangements.  This second loophole is compounded by the fact that the Free TV Code (which regulates the broadcast of alcohol ads on TV), allows alcohol ads to be broadcast during a sports program on a weekend or public holiday, or during a live sports event at any time – including, for example, during a Sunday morning sports event on TV.

It’s a positive step that the ABAC now contains restrictions on the placement of ads in media directed to children, but these restrictions are unlikely to reduce young people’s exposure to alcohol ads. This conclusion is supported by another recent study by Hannah Pierce and colleagues, which found that the ABAC’s age gating requirements and voluntary audience thresholds are ineffective in reducing alcohol marketing in times and places where young people are likely to be exposed.

Age gating on websites might stop young people from following the Instagram accounts of alcohol companies, for example, but it won’t stop them from seeing material that’s reposted or shared, or from interacting with digital content in other ways.

Another concern is the narrow definition of program and other media content that is “primarily aimed at minors.” Recent determinations from the ABAC Adjudication Panel suggest it interprets this phrase to mean content that appeals exclusively to minors, so that content appealing to both children and adults won’t be included – as with the superhero film Thor: Ragnarok. Pierce reports that the Panel dismissed a complaint about a whisky ad screened before this movie, because while the movie had broad appeal to adolescents, it was not primarily aimed at them.

Along with the loopholes in the substantive rules contained in the ABAC, the Scheme’s governance processes lack independence and public accountability. Although there’s some government oversight, the administration of the scheme is largely industry based, and there’s no independent monitoring of compliance with the ABAC, or external review of the Scheme’s operation. There are also few meaningful penalties available for ads that breach the ABAC. The Panel can order the removal or modification of an ad, but has no way of enforcing its rulings, or escalating to more serious penalties.

Given the serious limitations that remain in the ABAC – despite numerous government reviews and refinements over its 20-year history – it’s time for stronger government intervention. At the very least, the Federal Government could act to close off loopholes on cinema advertising and sponsorship, as well as introducing a comprehensive ban on all alcohol marketing within 150 metres of schools, childcare centres and playgrounds. The ABAC Scheme would also be improved if it was administered by an independent body with a broad range of enforcement options and no vested interest in showing that the Scheme is effective in protecting young people from alcohol marketing. In short, it’s time for a regulatory approach that prioritizes young people’s well-being over industry profits, and truly accords with good regulatory practice.

Cracking the Codex: the new frontier for nutrition labelling

Alexandra Jones, Global health lawyer and PhD Candidate at The George Institute for Global Health and the University of Sydney
Dr Anne Marie Thow, Senior Lecturer in Health Policy at the University of Sydney
Dr Carmen Huckel Schneider, Senior Lecturer, Health Policy at the University of Sydney and co-lead of the Health Governance and Financing Group and the Menzies Centre for Health Policy

Food labels hit the New York Times recently when leaks from North American Free Trade Agreement negotiations suggested the US was being urged by big American food and soft-drink companies to limit the ability of the pact’s three members – Mexico, Canada and the US – to implement warning labels on unhealthy foods.

There is no escaping the health imperative here. Obesity has nearly tripled since 1975 worldwide: 41 million children under 5 are now overweight, while 1.9 billion adults are overweight or obese. Spiralling health and economic costs mean governments are turning to evidence-based policies to prevent and control diet-related diseases like obesity, heart disease, stroke, diabetes and dental caries.

Better nutrition labelling – including front-of-pack labels that interpret nutrition information through symbols, colours or words – are part of the comprehensive package recommended by the World Health Organization. Over 20 countries already have policies in place – they include the UK’s traffic lights, France’s Nutriscore, Chile’s ‘stop sign’ warnings (which Peru appears set to follow), and Australasia’s Health Star Rating.

This proliferation and diversity poses trade and commercial challenges, and calls for some degree of consistency in global approach have been made.

Cracking the Codex (Alimentarius Commission)

This is where the international food standards body – the Codex Alimentarius Commission – comes in.

A UN body created by the WHO and UN Food and Agriculture Organization, Codex has a dual mandate: to protect consumer health, and promote fair trade practices.

Codex standards and guidance are voluntary, but in practice frequently act as a touchstone for countries looking to develop national policies. As Codex enjoys recognition as an international standards setting body by the WTO, guidance it develops also has potential to show up in trade discussions around food.

In short: what happens at Codex matters for public health nutrition.

Done well, Codex could bolster countries to take action. Left unchecked, there’s a risk outcomes could deter countries’ from implementing policies desperately needed to stem the rising global tide of non-communicable diseases.

As Codex is also notoriously slow – there’ll be a general meeting 2-6 July in Rome, and a further discussion paper for feedback later this year – it’s critical that the process itself not be used as a ‘brake’ on growing global momentum to implement strong front-of-pack labels.

Time for public health to assume a seat at the Codex table

Industry Observers have been quick to jump on opportunities to provide input into new Codex work on front-of-pack labelling. The first working group included representation from 13 international organizations representing the food industry, particularly the sugar and beverages sectors. Only two consumer groups were there.

It’s now critical we ensure public health bring their perspective to the table.

What you can do:

Read our briefing note for more information, and

  • Get involved – contact your national Codex Contact Point or join an Observer organization
  • Speak up about the public health priorities, like:
    • the importance of a definition of ‘front-of-pack nutrition labelling’ that supports schemes most likely to be effective in achieving public health objectives – and not, for example, industry preferred options such as the Guideline Daily Amount that aren’t backed by evidence
    • preserving policy space for strong and innovative measures – evidence is rapidly evolving but currently suggests for informing consumers and improving diets, this may include mandatory labels that use interpretive elements like colours, symbols or words, underpinned by robust and transparent criteria for scoring foods
  • Encourage continued action at a national level – remember, nothing in the current process prevents interested countries from pursuing front-of-pack labelling

Want to read more?


This piece was originally posted on the PLOS Global Health Blog on 25/06/2018, and has been re-posted with author consent.


Upcoming events: Engaging with Advocates

Advocates 1

On Friday the 28th of July, Sydney Health Law is hosting Engaging with Advocates, along with the Food Governance Node and the Healthy Food Systems Node at the Charles Perkins Centre.

This event aims to connect early career researchers with leading civil society advocates in order to foster collaboration and increase the impact of research. Representatives of organizations working on the sustainability of food systems, promoting healthier diets, and championing consumer rights will share personal experiences of using research in their efforts to improve policy, and offer insights for academics looking to strengthen the practical relevance of their research.

This event will feature keynote presentations by:

  • The Live Lighter Campaign (Heart Foundation Western Australia); and
  • Sustain: The Australian Food Network

The keynote presentations will be followed by a session where participants workshop “live” policy issues, and the event will conclude with networking drinks.

While the event is targeted at early-career researchers, academics at every level are welcome to attend, as are members of civil society and government organisations, and others who are interested. Further information can be found at this link.

We hope to see you there!

Sydney Health Law’s Food Governance Conference



In the first week of November, Sydney Health Law will be hosting the Food Governance Conference. The conference is a collaborative endeavor between Sydney Law School and the Charles Perkins Centre, the University of Sydney’s dedicated institute for easing the global burden of obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. The conference also has sponsorship from The George Institute for Global Health and the University’s Cancer Research Network.

The Food Governance Conference will explore the role of law, regulation and policy in addressing the key challenges associated with food and nutrition in the 21st century, including food security, food safety, and preventing diet-related disease such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease. It also engages with issues related to sustainability, equity, and justice in the food supply, with a strong focus on nutrition and diet-related health in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.

In taking such a broad focus we hope that the Conference will highlight the interrelationships between the main challenges facing the global food system in the 21st century. The conference will also showcase the work of researchers in developing new, innovative solutions to these challenges, with the conference including presenters from across Australia, as well as from the UK, Canada, and New Zealand. Some of the issues considered at the conference include:

  • Taxes on sugar-sweetened beverages
  • Free range egg labeling
  • Urban farming
  • The role of business in improving nutrition and diet-related health, and
  • The influence of trade agreements on the global food system

A draft conference program and registration form are available on the conference website.

Public events

We have an exciting program of events around the Food Governance Conference, including two free, public lectures to open the conference.

Professor Corinna Hawkes will be giving the opening address for the conference on Tuesday the 1st of November at 6pm at the Charles Perkins Centre Auditorium. This lecture is free and open to the public. Professor Hawkes is the Director of the Centre for Food Policy at City University London and a world-renowned expert on food and nutrition policy. She’ll be speaking on the three biggest challenges facing the food system, and how we fix them. If you’re interested in this talk, you can register at this link.

Dr Alessandro Demaio will also be giving a public lecture at 1-2pm on Tuesday the 1st of November at Sydney Law School. Dr Demaio (from the World Health Organisation) will be speaking on the links between food, nutrition and cancer, and what the nutrition community can learn from the cancer community from its fight against tobacco. Further details about his talk are available at this link.

Workshop on food advocacy

Along with the Charles Perkins Centre, the Australian Right to Food Coalition is hosting a masterclass on becoming an effective food policy advocate, featuring Professor Corinna Hawkes. The purpose of this master class is to encourage debate among academics and civil society about the role of advocacy in food and nutrition policy, what it is, and how it can be used more effectively. Registrations for the master class can be made herePlease note that the master class is now full.

We’re looking forward to the inaugural Food Governance Conference at the University of Sydney, and we hope to see you there. We welcome any questions about the conference, which can be directed to Dr Belinda Reeve: Belinda.reeve@sydney.edu.au

Follow #foodgovernance2016 on Twitter for updates about the conference!

Upcoming Conferences: Governing Food

Governing Food

Governing Food: The Role of Law, Regulation and Policy in Meeting 21st Century Challenges to the Food Supply

Dates: Tuesday 1st November – Thursday 3rd November 2016

Venue: Sydney Law School

Sydney Health Law is hosting the Governing Food Conference in November this year, in conjunction with the University of Sydney’s Charles Perkins Centre and with sponsorship from The George Institute for Global Health.

 Governing Food will bring together researchers and practitioners from a range of disciplines to explore the role of law, regulation and policy in promoting a healthy, safe and sustainable food supply. The conference will be opened by a public keynote address on Tuesday the 1st of November, to be delivered by Professor Corinna Hawkes from the Centre for Food Policy at City University London. The main days of the conference will be Wednesday the 2nd of November and Thursday the 3rd of November.

The call for abstracts and further details about the conference can be found at this address. You can also contact Dr Belinda Reeve in relation to any questions about the conference: belinda.reeve@sydney.edu.au.

We hope to see you there!


Is your summer barbeque under fire? Chewing over the evidence on meat and cancer, and digesting the implications for regulation

Corned beef

The report

We’ve now had a few weeks to chew over the latest report linking food and cancer. Only this time it wasn’t a puff-piece in your Sunday newspaper, but an extremely comprehensive report from IARC, the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer. After a systematic review, IARC’s findings on the links between red and processed meat consumption, and cancer, were published in a press release and in The Lancet in late October (the full findings will be published later as a monograph).

In brief, red meat (“all mammalian muscle meat, including, beef, veal, pork, lamb, mutton, horse, and goat”) was classified as being probably carcinogenic to humans. Processed meat (“meat that has been transformed through salting, curing, fermentation, smoking, or other processes to enhance flavour or improve preservation”) was classified as carcinogenic to humans. This means that, based on epidemiological studies, IARC found “convincing evidence” that meat products like ham, sausages, corned beef and biltong cause colorectal cancer.

Is meat the “new tobacco”?

Despite widespread media reporting that red and processed meats were now “as big a threat as cigarettes”, IARC did not actually make this comparison. Rather, it rated the strength of the evidence for the link as “Group 1”, meaning that the evidence is strong. So, the evidence linking tobacco and lung cancer is equally persuasive (Group 1) but this does not mean that eating meat is as dangerous as smoking. (This classification system is widely used in systematic assessments of nutritional evidence, including in the Australian Dietary Guidelines.)

Among those who denounced the comparison between eating meat and smoking cigarettes was Australia’s Agriculture Minister, Barnaby Joyce. Clearly, Mr Joyce has an interest in dampening any concerns that might threaten Australia’s reputation as a nation of meat-eaters – but in this case his assessment of the evidence was correct.

Regulation of bacon: the next frontier for public health law?

All in all, you may want to consider throwing a few extra vegetable skewers on your next barbeque. But more interestingly for our purposes, what – if any – are the implications for law and regulation?

As countries such as India and China undergo rapid social and nutritional transitions, the demand for meat will only grow – worldwide, meat-eating is correlated with greater wealth. This has environmental as well as health implications. Together, these implications may eventually prompt countries to take regulatory action.

While there are currently no jurisdictions that regulate the consumption of meat, the following developments may be indicative of an early trend:

  • “Meatless Mondays” or “meat-free Mondays” campaigns have been springing up around the world since the early 2000s. These tend to be grassroots civil society initiatives aimed at making vegetarian food more acceptable and available.
  • In 2009, the Belgian city of Ghent became the first in the world to proclaim an official “Veggie Thursday”.
  • The most recent iteration of the US government’s dietary guidelines, “MyPlate”, refers to daily “protein” rather than “meat” consumption.
  • In the early 1990s, Ghana introduced food standards setting maximum fat limits for pork, beef, mutton and poultry, in response to concerns about diet-related NCDs. While not a curb on meat consumption per se, this regulatory response does speak to some of the concerns raised by IARC.
  • Perhaps most tellingly, the food industry has come to recognise the commercial potential of vegetarian foods, which are now said to have “gone mainstream” after decades on the hippie fringe.

This is where the comparison with tobacco control may be more salient. The evidence linking tobacco to cancer was recognised by some governments as early as the mid-1950s, but the WHO’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control was not enacted until 2003. Biltong regulation will no doubt require a similar fermentation period. But the mix of voluntary, regulatory and commercial developments above suggests that the goal of curbing meat consumption is not far-fetched or conceptually unappealing. More controversial perhaps will be the methods of achieving that goal. Warning labels on a pack of sausages? A tax on bacon? A ban on quarter-pounders? We’ll get back to you in 30 years…

Consider yourself warned: Public health coming to a fast food menu near you

New York City’s Board of Health last week unanimously agreed to require ‘salt-shaker’ warning symbols on menu items with more than an entire day’s recommended limit of 2300mg of sodium. That’s around one teaspoon of salt.

Restaurants with more than 15 outlets nationally will display warnings from 1 December 2015.

Warning: the sodium (salt) content of this item is higher than the total daily recommended limit (2300 mg). High sodium intake can increase blood pressure and risk of heart disease and stroke.

Industry groups and the National Restaurant Association have been as swift in their (predictable) opposition as public health advocates have been to welcome the move. The Center for Science in the Public Interest has even begun a Pinterest board of qualifying items – a salt shaming parade of sorts.

Surrounding public debate has renewed attention on the health impact of salt. Sugar may have received more publicity of late, but population salt reduction is a World Health Organization ‘best-buy’ for public health.

Cardiovascular disease is now the world’s biggest killer, and high blood pressure the leading risk factor for these deaths. Links between salt and high blood pressure are so well established that in 2011, countries agreed to pursue a 30% relative reduction in population salt intake, aiming towards an average of less than 5 grams a day (approx. 2000mg of sodium) by 2025. In Australia, a 30% reduction could save around 3400 lives each year – that’s three times the national road toll.

Many are aware of salt’s potential harms, but it appears most people are failing to personalise their own risk – and thereby failing to modify their behaviour accordingly.

New York’s measure is built on figures that just 1 in 10 Americans are abiding by current guidelines. Most Australians aren’t aware of the daily recommended amount, yet believe their own intake of salt to be ‘about right’ (spoiler: it’s not!) People may not realise around 75% of salt intake comes from processed and restaurant foods – making it hard for even motivated individuals to reduce consumption alone, particularly without user-friendly information available on labels or menus. Ironically the source of the problem is not the salt-shaker itself. Not the one you keep at home, anyway.

Introducing a warning icon is a step in the right direction. Graphic and simple, it aligns with growing evidence from a packaging context that interpretive labelling helps consumers make healthier choices. Such measures also have broader impact by driving reformulation. If you were the maker of Jersey Mike’s Buffalo Chicken Cheesesteak – currently containing an astounding 7795mg of sodium – would you continue to invite adverse publicity via online ‘worst-of’ lists and in-store warning labels, or instead dial down salt, perhaps even phasing out the item from sale? Reformulated recipes rolled out by national chains may benefit millions of fast food customers far beyond New York City. Even before the potential ‘domino effect’ when emboldened health authorities elsewhere copy the measure, the little salt-shaker icon could have significant flow-on effects.

But what is an amount of salt worth warning us about? Burger industry representatives have been quick to proclaim most burgers in NYC wouldn’t be slapped with warnings under the current threshold. One whole teaspoon is a high bar if applied only to individual items. If a similar measure were applied in Australia, we may not see too many salt-shakers appear, though KFC’s Zinger Stacker burger comes dangerously close. Thankfully the law also applies to advertised meal combinations – in case you needed it, one more incentive not to ‘super-size me’.

Perhaps an entire day’s total is still an unreasonably high benchmark. If we allow food companies to market packaged foods as a ‘good source’ of positive nutrients like protein or fibre when containing just 20% of the daily recommended intake, and an ‘excellent’ source at 50% – why not apply a similar metric to a warning when the reverse is true?

Even if items don’t qualify for a salt-shaker, few would argue most products sold by these chains are ‘good for you’. Some point to limitations of focusing on single nutrient warnings, but such critiques miss the intervention’s place as only one component of a suite of complementary measures (including voluntary salt reformulation programs and trans-fat bans) which operate together to improve the food environment and enable consumers to make healthier choices.

In NYC – just as in New South Wales – total energy content is already displayed for all menu items. Results from NSW have been encouraging: the Food Authority found a 15% decrease in average kilojoules purchased. Despite a recent high-profile breach by McDonalds’ on its new digital menu boards, compliance has generally been high. Laws exist only in NSW, South Australia and the ACT, but many national chains have rolled out kilojoule information nationwide, delivering benefits to countless Australians.

As NSW considers extending menu labels to cover additional nutrients, New York’s salt-shaker provides global leadership. Perhaps better still, Australia has already developed a system combining information on a variety of risk factors (salt, sugar and saturated fat) with positive nutrients and total energy content into a single interpretive symbol. If ‘Health Star Ratings’ prove popular on front-of-pack of packaged foods in our supermarkets, why not extend them to fast food?

Further Reading:

Upcoming Conferences: Emerging Health Policy Research Conference 2015

The Menzies Centre for Health Policy is hosting its 10th annual Emerging Health Policy Research Conference on Tuesday, 21 July 2015, at the University of Sydney.

The Conference showcases the work of current masters, doctoral and early career research workers, as well as those new to the field of health policy research. This year’s keynote speaker is Professor Billie Giles-Cori, Director of the McCaughey VicHealth Community Wellbeing Unit, Centre for Health Equity, University of Melbourne. The conference includes sessions on healthy environments, research translation, health systems and workforce, policy analysis, and mental health.

The full conference program and registration form are available on the Menzies Centre website.

Australia gets a D- in chronic disease prevention

Writing in The Age earlier this month, Professor Rob Moodie gave the Australian Federal Government a failing grade for its efforts in non-communicable disease prevention. According to Professor Moodie, Australia’s preventive health agenda ‘is in serious trouble’ and ‘there’s a grave risk of it disappearing altogether.’

Professor Moodie’s assessment draws upon a recent report from the Mitchell Institute of Health and Education Policy at Victoria University, authored by Sharon Wilcox. This report maps out the social, economic and health costs of chronic diseases to the Australian community, and identifies evidence on the cost-effectiveness of interventions to prevent chronic disease (a second report identifies strategic priorities for taking action in preventive health). This blog post uses the Mitchell Institute’s report as the basis for an assessment of Australia’s progress in NCD prevention, focusing on the Federal Government’s response to the World Health Organisation’s  (WHO) Global Action Plan for the Prevention and Control of NCDs, and the government’s response to the report of the National Preventive Health Taskforce in 2009.

The Global Action Plan for the Prevention and Control of NCDs 2013-2020

In September 2011 the United Nations devoted a high level summit to NCDs, which led to the adoption of the Political Declaration on the Prevention and Control of Non-Communicable Diseases. In 2012 the WHO set the global target of a 25% reduction in premature NCD mortality by 2025 (the ’25×25′ goal), and a year later it adopted the Global Action Plan for the Prevention and Control of NCDs 2013-2020. The Global Action Plan provides a road map and menu of policy options for states and other actors to reduce the burden of NCDs. It also sets out a global monitoring framework, including nine voluntary global targets and 25 indicators for tracking progress towards achieving the voluntary targets, with reporting due in 2015 and 2020. The action plan anticipates that states will develop policies and set national targets for chronic disease prevention, and monitor their progress against agreed indicators.

The National Preventative Health Taskforce

In 2008 the Federal Labor Government established the National Preventive Health Taskforce (NPHT), and charged it with developing strategies to tackle the health challenges posed by tobacco, alcohol, and obesity. Following a process of consultation and review, the Taskforce released its final report in September 2009, entitled Australia: The Healthiest Country by 2020. The report comprised five documents, and put forward 136 recommendations and 35 areas for action, focusing on preventive measures for tackling obesity, tobacco and alcohol, as well as developing critical prevention infrastructure.

The Taskforce set four main goals for prevention by 2020, and identified seven strategic directions for effective implementation of its recommendations, including shared responsibility between different government and non-government actors; engaging communities; influencing markets and developing connected and coherent policy; reducing inequality; ‘closing the gap’ for Indigenous Australians and refocusing primary care towards prevention.

The Taskforce proposed action that encouraged individuals to adopt healthy lifestyles, but also targeted the social, cultural, and economic environments that shape individual choices on tobacco, alcohol, and unhealthy food consumption. Using a phased approach, the report recommended the introduction of a range of measures to reshape unhealthy environments, including: interpretive food labelling on packaged foods and fast-food restaurant menus; restricting food advertising to children; expanding restrictions on tobacco promotion and mandating plain packaging; protecting young people from exposure to alcohol advertising, and introducing a minimum floor price for alcoholic beverages.

In 2010 the Federal Government released its response to the Taskforce’s report, called Taking Preventive Action: A Response to Australia: The Healthiest Country by 2020.  The government addressed 68 of the Taskforce’s recommendations, and considered a further 49. The government identified 15 recommendations as the responsibility of state and territory governments, and stated that four other recommendations were not consistent with government policy. The final sections of this post discuss the government’s response to the NPHT’s recommendations for specific initiatives related to obesity, tobacco and alcohol.

In relation to preventative health infrastructure, the government had established the National Partnership Agreement (NPA) on Preventive Health prior to the release of the Taskforce’s final report, to which it allocated $872.1 million for investment in prevention initiatives, including community-based programs and local policies that support healthy eating and physical activity. States and territories also agreed to report on progress in reducing the prevalence of unhealthy weight, smoking, physical inactivity and poor nutrition through the NPA.

The government established the Australian National Preventive Health Agency (ANPHA) in response to the NPHT’s report, an independent statutory authority that was to coordinate the government’s response to the report of the NPHT, and which was funded through the NPA. The work of the ANPHA included monitoring and evaluating national prevention policies and programs; advising COAG on national priorities and options for preventative health; administering national programs, and facilitating national partnerships, and advising on national infrastructure for surveillance, monitoring, research and evaluation.

Australia’s 2014 report on implementation of the Global Action Plan 

Australia is a signatory to the WHO’s Global Action Plan on NCD Prevention, and made submissions contributing to its development. Australia also provided information in 2010 and 2014 on its capacity to address chronic diseases.

In 2014, Australia self-assessed its capacity to respond to chronic diseases as relatively strong, on the basis that it had a national systems response to NCDs, an operational NCD unit within the Department of Health, and a multisectoral national policy on NDCs, accompanied by policies on specific NCD risk factors – the harmful use of alcohol, physical inactivity, unhealthy diets, and tobacco use. However, the government indicated that it did not have an NCD surveillance and monitoring system to enable reporting against the nine global NCD targets.

The Mitchell report concludes that there is a lack of comprehensive, public reporting on how well Australia is tackling NCDs. Australia has established targets and indicators in line with its commitments under the Global Action Plan, via the NPA on Preventive Health and the National Health Performance Authority’s Performance and Accountability Framework. The latter identifies indicators against which the performance of public hospitals and primary health care organisations are measured, some of which relate to the risk factors for NCDs. However, together these amount to a relatively narrow suite of indicators. Despite the Global Action Plan including measurable targets for six key risk factors, Australian indicators focus on smoking, physical activity, body weight and the consumption of fruits and vegetables, excluding targets for tackling harmful alcohol use, reducing salt intake, and blood pressure.

The NPA on Preventive Health required states and territories to provide reports outlining performance against benchmarks as at 30 June 2013 and 31 December 2014, but there was no requirement for the reports to be made public, thus significantly reducing the accountability of the targets, according to the Mitchell Institute report.  The COAG Reform Council had responsibility for monitoring the performance of various national partnership agreements in Australia, but it did not publish any analyses of progress under the NPA on Preventive Health. The Council’s final report on the National Healthcare Agreement  described data for two of the performance benchmarks in the NPA, noting that smoking rates had fallen significantly, but not sufficiently to meet the benchmark of reducing smoking rates to 10% by 2019. The report also mentioned that there was no significant change in the proportion of adults or children at a healthy body weight between 2007-08 and 2011-2012.

Two steps forward and one step back: rescinding prevention funding and abolishing infrastructure

Australia’s capacity to address NCDs is critically impaired by reforms under the Federal Abbot Liberal Government, which has dismantled prevention infrastructure introduced by the previous Labor government in response to the report of the NPHT, and it has also rescinded funding for prevention initiatives. In its 2014-15 Budget, the government indicated that it would:

  • Abolish the COAG Reform Council;
  • Abolish the ANPHA; and
  • Cease funding the NPA on Preventive Health

These changes mean the loss of  $386 million in funding for various prevention agreements made between the Federal Government and the states, and imply that there is no longer dedicated, specific national funding for the prevention of chronic disease. The status and commitment of governments to targets under the NPA on Preventive Health is now uncertain, and the abolition of the NPA and the ANPHA remove key mechanisms for coordinating state and Federal Government action on preventive health. The abolition of the ANPHA and the COAG Reform Council also critically impairs national monitoring and reporting on targets for the prevention of chronic diseases.

The Mitchell report notes other limitations in the Federal Government’s response to prevention, including the absence of a comprehensive, coordinated policy framework for prevention, and a lack of current estimates or recent trend data on the morbidity and mortality rates associated with chronic diseases (although it notes that there has been some investment in new research and expanded datasets, including the expansion of the Australian Health Survey in 2011-12 to include additional data on nutrition, physical activity and biomedical measures).

A failure to take action on many of the NPHT’s recommendations 

The Federal Government has failed to act on many of the recommendations for prevention initiatives from the NPHT in relation to reducing obesity, tobacco use and excessive alcohol consumption, which were meant to accompany the expansion of government infrastructure for prevention. There were some promising first steps following the Taskforce’s report, including an increase of 25% in tobacco excise from April 2010; harmonising tax rates for alcopops with other spirit-based drinks, and the introduction of tobacco plain packaging laws, which took effect in 2012. However, many of the NPHT’s other recommendations have not been implemented, including greater restrictions on promoting alcohol at times or locations where young people are likely to be exposed to such promotions, and the introduction of health impact assessments by governments across all policies.

My own research, undertaken together with Professor Roger Magnusson, shows that where the government has acted on the NPHT’s recommendations, it has often chosen the weakest regulatory option available. The Federal Government encouraged the food industry to create its own voluntary codes on marketing food to children, despite the Taskforce recommending legislation that banned unhealthy food promotions before 9pm on television. The government supported a voluntary ‘health star rating system’ for food labelling, giving in to industry lobbying against the traffic light labelling system proposed by health advocates. Through the Food and Health Dialogue the government has established a platform for voluntary collaboration between industry, government and public health organisations on a program of product reformulation, which, although promising, lacks transparency and accountability.

The government remains committed to industry engagement and voluntary action, despite evidence that such initiatives produce very limited improvements at best, and that many such programs lack the design features of successful voluntary programs.

Where to from here?

The Federal Government’s inaction on NCDs is frustrating, because much of this burden of death and disease is preventable, and often at relatively little cost. The risk factors for NCDs are well known, and the WHO has identified series of “best buys” for tackling NCDs, i.e. effective, feasible policies that are affordable for most countries. Australian research has also evaluated the cost-effectiveness of a suite of preventive measures, and has identified promising opportunities for action, including increasing taxes on alcohol and tobacco by 30%, taxing unhealthy foods by an additional 10%, and mandatory limits for the salt content of processed food.

Many of these measures require legislative or regulatory reform in order to be implemented by government. Legislative change aimed at NCD prevention is often put into the ‘too hard’ basket in Australia, with even those supporting public health reforms claiming that it can’t be done. But many countries are experimenting with novel legislative and regulatory measures to address NCDs, including mandatory limits on the salt content of processed foods in South Africa, co-regulatory restrictions on junk food marketing to children in the United Kingdom, and a one peso per litre tax on soft drink in Mexico.

These examples show that strong government intervention to prevent NCDs is not outside the realm of possibility, and that Australia is fast becoming a ‘laggard’ in NCD prevention, despite its world-class track record in tobacco control. Future blog posts will further explore Australia’s efforts in chronic disease prevention, and identify avenues for action, including novel forms of regulation aimed at promoting healthy lifestyles, and legal mechanisms for strengthening existing voluntary initiatives favored by the Federal Government.