Upcoming events: Protecting children from unhealthy food marketing – learning from the past, ideas for the future

Junk food marketing.jpg

Along with Cancer Council NSW and the Charles Perkins Centre’s Food Governance Node, Sydney Health Law is hosting an event on regulation of unhealthy food marketing to children.

Protecting children from unhealthy food marketing remains a hot topic, given increasing concern about children’s diet-related health.

In Australia, food marketing to children is regulated largely through two voluntary food industry initiatives. In the lead up to the 10th anniversary of these initiatives, this event will examine their success in improving the food marketing environment, along with the recent ACCC v Heinz decision and developments in food advertising regulation at a state level.

Details for the event are as follows, and you can register to attend here.

Date: Wednesday 7th November

Time: 6-8pm (canapés from 5.30pm)

Venue: Law Foyer, Level 2, Sydney Law School 

Speakers:

  • Research on food marketing and children’s health – the state of play: Associate Professor Bridget Kelly, University of Wollongong
  • Consumer law and food marketing in ACC v Heinz: Adrian Coorey ACCC, and Jane Martin, Obesity Policy Coalition
  • The food industry’s initiatives on marketing to children: Geoffrey Annison, Australian Food and Grocery Council, and Jane Martin, Obesity Policy Coalition
  • State government regulation of food advertising on transport infrastructure: Wendy Watson, Cancer Council NSW, and Emily Harper, ACT Health

First, protect the child, then worry about the penitent sinner: South Australia’s new mandatory reporting legislation

South Australia is on a collision course with the Catholic Church hierarchy following passage of the Children and Young People (Safety) Act 2017.

Chapter 5, Part 1 (ss 30-31), deals with reporting of suspicion that a child or young person may be at risk.  These sections come into effect on 22 October 2018, and impose a duty on ministers of religion, including priests, to report suspicions of child abuse, irrespective of whether that information was obtained during a confession.

Under the Children’s Protection Act 1993 (SA), which currently applies, ministers of religion and employees and volunteers in religious organisations owe a duty to notify suspicions of abuse or neglect: s 11(2).

However, a priest or minister of religion is given a specific exemption from divulging “information communicated in the course of a confession made in accordance with the rules and usages of the relevant religion”: s 11(4).

That changes in October.

Section 31 of the new Act requires health and welfare professionals and ministers of religion to report the suspicion that a child or young person is “at risk”.  There are no exemptions for information disclosed during a confession.

Priests are not singled out in the new legislation.  Section 30 applies to ministers of religion and employees or volunteers of organisations formed for religious or spiritual purposes.  The obligation also applies to medical practitioners, dentists, nurses, psychologists, pharmacists, police officers, community correction officers, social workers, teachers, and employees or volunteers for organisations that provide health, welfare, education, sporting, recreational child care or residential services for children.

Concept of “at risk”

Section 31 requires health and welfare professionals and ministers of religion to report the suspicion that a child or young person is “at risk”.

The concept “of risk” is defined in section 18: it includes circumstances where a child has suffered harm or is likely to suffer harm of a kind from which a child or young person is ordinarily protected.  This includes sexual assaults and related criminal offences.

The concept of “at risk” also includes a suspicion that a child is to be removed from the state for the purposes of undergoing female genital mutilation.

Section 31(3) states that a health or welfare professional may – but is not required – to report when they suspect on reasonable grounds the physical or psychological development of an unborn child is at risk, whether because of the pregnant woman’s behaviour or otherwise.

“Course of employment”

The obligation to report under s 31 arises when a health or welfare professional has a suspicion on reasonable grounds that arises in the course of their employment.

The concept of “employment” is defined broadly to include an employee, independent contractor, volunteer, as well as someone who “carries out work as a minister of religion or as part of the duties of a religious or spiritual vocation”.

Priests to defy new law

Debate about South Australia’s new mandatory reporting requirements takes place against the background of the conviction of Adelaide’s Archbishop Philip Wilson for concealing a serious indictable offence by failing to report credible allegations of sexual abuse of two altar boys by a paedophile priest.

This information did not come to Archbishop Wilson in the confessional and Catholic doctrine did not preclude him acting on it.

The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse recommended that any minister of religion convicted of a crime relating to child sexual abuse should “in the case of Catholic priests and religious [orders], be dismissed from the priesthood and/or dispensed from his or her vows” (16.56.a).

Archbishop Wilson was sentenced to 12 months imprisonment, but has said he will appeal the conviction.  In the meantime, he has refused to resign, indicating, however, that he would resign if the conviction was upheld.

Meanwhile, Acting Archbishop Greg O’Kelly has confirmed that priests are bound by church doctrines and that the new law “doesn’t affect us”.

Appraisal

The fact that a minority of priests have committed sexual offences against children, and that other senior Catholic clergy have failed to act on knowledge of such offences does not mean that sexual predators regularly or even occasionally confess to sexual offences during confession.  The two issues are distinct.

However, even if information about the abuse of a child reaches a priest during a confession only rarely, what does the Catholic church’s rule about absolute secrecy say about its sense of right and wrong?

The very position that such information should remain absolutely confidential if conveyed during the Sacrament of Reconciliation suggests that it is more important to encourage the penitent sinner to seek absolution than to protect the child.

You’d have to be a priest, as distinct from a parent, to follow the logic or the morality of that.

I’m a parent, and I’ll tell you what every other parent will tell you: the over-riding moral priority is to protect your child.

Protect the child.  That’s more important than swearing secrecy to someone who reveals that they are a sexual predator.  What’s not to understand?

In fact, how does someone – acutely sensitised to the rightness and wrongness of things – get to a place where they don’t understand this?

Do penitent sexual offenders never re-offend?

If the person who confesses is truly penitent, surely they would not want the child they harmed to be isolated from services to help them recover from their trauma?

The confessional should not enable further wrong-doing.

It this case it’s secular morality, and the South Australian Parliament, that is leading the way.

Trump: the war on breastfeeding

The New York Times reports that US officials threatened to unleash trade sanctions and withdraw military aid from Ecuador unless it withdraw a resolution at May’s World Health Assembly calling on governments to “protect, promote and support breast-feeding”.

The article is worth reading in its entirety.

As the father of a currently breastfeeding infant, I find this kind of behaviour utterly repellent.

There are echoes of Right to Health language (respect, protect, fulfil) in the resolution which might have displeased the Americans, but the real motivator was American support for large corporate manufacturers of breast-milk substitutes.

(Like Chicago-based Abbott Laboratories.)

Ecuador backed off from the offending resolution, as did “at least a dozen other countries, most of them poor nations in Africa and Latin America”.

Then Russia stepped in, and the intimidation apparently stopped.

“We’re not trying to be a hero here”, said a Russian delegate to the World Health Assembly, “but we feel that it is wrong when a big country tries to push around some very small countries, especially on an issue that is really important for the rest of the world.”

Plenty of ironies here.  But they have a point.

According to the New York Times report, a Department of Health and Human Services spokesperson said: “The resolution as originally drafted placed unnecessary hurdles for mothers seeking to provide nutrition to their children.  We recognize not all women are able to breast-feed for a variety of reasons. These women should have the choice and access to alternatives for the health of their babies, and not be stigmatized for the ways in which they are able to do so.”

Well gosh, that ought to sort out the doubters.

The Lancet reports that scaling up breast-feeding to near universal levels could avoid 823,000 deaths of children under 5 each year, and 20,000 maternal deaths from breast cancer.

Breastfeeding protects both mother and child, and it’s free, which is important if you’re poor.

Yet for billion dollar formula companies, the temptation to monetise the act of feeding by targeting young mothers, is just irresistible.

Read the Guardian’s investigation into Nestle’s marketing practices flogging formula to poor women in central Manila here.  Then weep.

Here is the resolution that eventually passed in the World Health Assembly, with American support.

Amongst other things, it requests the WHO Director-General to provide, upon request, “technical support to Member States to establish, review and implement national laws, policies and programmes to support infant and young child feeding”.

However, US hostility scuttled language that would have called on WHO to provide “technical support to member states seeking to halt “inappropriate promotion of foods for infants and young children.”

“Inappropriate” in this context would refer to the promotion of foods in contravention of the International Code of Conduct of Breast-milk Substitutes.

The Code prohibits the advertising of infant formula and other breast-milk substitutes to the general public, to pregnant women and mothers, and to health workers who are concerned with infant and maternal nutrition.  It also prohibits the giving of samples and other incentives for purchase. Governments are urged to implement the Code through national legislation, regulations or other suitable measures.

In addition, the Code states that infant formula should contain a clear statement of the superiority of breastfeeding, and a statement that the product should only be used following advice from a health worker. The container and labels should not contain pictures of infants, or include pictures or text that “may idealize the use of infant formula”.

Appropriately, the resolution does urge Member States (of the World Health Organisation) to strengthen national initiatives to implement the Code.

However, when you put it all together, it appears the Trump administration does not want sovereign countries receiving technical support from WHO about how best to frame their laws and policies to prevent predatory marketing practices that breach the Code.

It’s the Trump administration’s war on breastfeeding women.

Click here for information about the Australian Breastfeeding Association.

ANNOUNCEMENT: Sydney Law School and the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney are co-hosting an evening seminar entitled “Public health law and health leadership in the United States: What can Australia learn?” on 19 July 2018, 6.00-7.30pmClick here for the brochure and further details.  A separate post will follow about this event.

If you’re interested to learn more about law and non-communicable diseases, Sydney Law School is offering a Masters unit, “Law, Business & Healthy Lifestyles” in the coming semester.  Click here for more information.

Santa, Coke and Christmas: Why we need legislative restrictions on unhealthy food marketing to children

coke bus shelter

Laws in many countries prohibit false and misleading advertising. The recent case of ACCC v Heinz (which I discussed in a blog post last week) shows how these laws can knock out false and misleading food advertisements. But what about the perfectly legal promotions for unhealthy foods and beverages that fill our TV screens, social media platforms, billboards, and bus shelters?

In some countries, governments are moving to reduce children’s exposure to unhealthy food marketing by placing legislative restrictions on when and where unhealthy food products can be marketed. For example, Chile has banned unhealthy food advertisements on TV before 10pm, along with a range of other obesity-prevention measures.

In countries like the US, Australia, and NZ, restrictions on unhealthy food marketing are found in self-regulatory codes developed by the food or advertising industries. However, these codes often contain significant loopholes and do little to reduce children’s exposure to unhealthy food marketing. This is illustrated by two complaints recently determined by New Zealand’s Advertising Standards Complaints Board.

The Complaints Board hears public complaints about breaches of the Children and Young People’s Advertising Code, developed by an advertising industry body. Following a recent review, the Code now contains a series of principles and rules on the marketing of “occasional food and beverage products” to children and young people. These products are identified using a Ministry of Health nutrient profiling system that distinguishes between “everyday”, “sometimes”, and “occasional” foods. The Code also distinguishes between children (aged under 14 years) and young people (aged 14-17 years).

Principle 1 of the Code states that “[a]dvertisements targeted at children or young people must not contain anything that is likely to result in their physical, mental or moral harm and must observe a high standard of social responsibility.” Among the rules listed under this principle are (1)(i), which states that “[a]dvertisements (including sponsorship advertisements) for occasional food or beverage products must not target children or be placed in any media where children are likely to be a significant proportion of the expected average audience.”

Under rule 1(j) advertisers must exercise a special duty of care in advertising occasional food and beverage products to young people (as opposed to children).

The Code uses three criteria to determine whether an ad targets children or young people: (1) whether the nature and intended purpose of the advertised product or service is principally or generally appealing to children/young people; (2) whether the presentation of the advertisement content (e.g., theme, images, colours, wording) is appealing to children/young people; and (3) whether the expected average audience at the time or place the advertisement appears includes a significant proportion of children/young people. Measures for determining the likely child audience of an advertisement include whether a medium’s audience comprises 25% or more children; whether the medium appears in child viewing time zones; whether a medium contains content with significant appeal to children; and whether an ad appears in locations where children gather, e.g., schools and playgrounds.

Principle 3 of the Code states that “[a] special duty of care must be exercised for Occasional Food and Beverage Product sponsorship advertising targeted to young people.” The rules under this principle include 3(a), which prevents sponsorship advertising from depicting an occasional food or beverage product, such product’s packaging, or consumption of such products.

Healthy Together Auckland has laid a series of complaints that aim to test the Code’s rules on unhealthy food marketing.

One recent complaint concerned an advertisement on a bus shelter in close proximity to a primary school and a secondary school, and to shops where a large number of children and young people stopped on their way to and from school. The advertisement (pictured above) featured Santa Clause riding in a car holding two bottles of Coke, one a no-sugar version of the product, and the other a “classic” or “full sugar” version. It included the logos for Youthline (a help line for young people) and Coca-Cola, and text encouraging donations to Youthline.

The Board upheld the complaint that the ad was a sponsorship advertisement for an occasional beverage that targeted children and young people.

In considering whether the ad targeted children and young people, the Board held that full-sugar Coke was a product that appealed to children and young people and was an occasional beverage. In relation to the content of the ad, the Board said that Youthline would not have strong appeal to children, but would with young people – Youthline’s target audience. Crucially, Santa Claus was the most prominent image in the ad, and has strong appeal with children and is closely associated with Christmas, and children asking Santa for presents, all of which would encourage children to engage with the ad. According to the Board, while Santa has less appeal for young people, his particular presentation in this ad (e.g., riding in a car) would appeal to the 14-17 year age group.

The Board held that children under the age of 14 years were unlikely to be a significant proportion of the ad’s audience (given the bus shelter’s distance from the primary school), but it would be seen by a significant proportion of young people, as it was close to the secondary school, and young people caught the bus from the stop that the ad appeared at and would gather at near-by shops.

Accordingly, the Board held that the ad breached Principle 1 and rule 1(i) of the Code by promoting an occasional beverage to children, as well as Principle 3 and rule 3(a), but note rule 1(j) (on exercising special care in unhealthy food marketing to young people) or another rule on the responsible use of characters that are popular with children (1(h)).

While this first complaint was upheld in part, a second complaint, related to Coca-Cola Christmas in the Park events held in Auckland and Christchurch, was dismissed by the Board.

The complaint concerned the events themselves, as well as event promotions that appeared on bus shelters, in newspapers and on news websites, and included fireworks, people dancing on a stage, and the messaging, “Coca-Cola Christmas in the Park. Supporting Youthline. Merry Christmas from Coca-Cola. Come share the magic.” The complainant was also concerned that hundreds of free Coke drinks were given away to children at the events, who made up a large percentage of the audience.

The Board held that it did not have the jurisdiction to consider the event itself or the product give-aways at the event. This was because the events did not constitute “advertising” for the purposes of the Code: they were a “community initiative”, of which Coke was one of many sponsors, and the event’s intended purpose was entertainment rather than influencing the choice, opinion or behaviour of consumers to purchase the product, as required by the Code’s definition of advertising.

Promotions for the events could be defined as sponsorship advertisements, meaning that they fell within the scope of the Code. However, there were no images of Coke products in the advertisement, and while the ad did include the Coke logo, the focus of the ad was on promoting the events rather than persuading views to purchase Coke. Accordingly, the ads did not promote an occasional food or beverage.

The creative content of the ads would have appeal to children and young people, as would Christmas in the Park, Youthline and the Coca-Cola Company Brand. However, the Board held that the placement of the ads was directed to parents, as children would not comprise 25% of more of the readers or viewers of the media that the ads appeared in (e.g., the New Zealand Herald), and on balance, it was unlikely that the ads would be seen by a significant proportion of children.

As the ads did not promote an occasional food or beverage product and were not targeted to children, the Board determined that the ads did not breach any of the Code’s principles and rules on food marketing to children and young people.

The New Zealand Code contains rules that are stronger in some respects than similar rules found in codes in other jurisdictions, including the two codes developed by the food industry  in Australia. For example, the New Zealand Code restricts unhealthy food marketing in settings where children gather (including around shops or bus shelters, as illustrated by the first complaint). Equivalent restrictions in the Australian codes only apply to pre-schools, primary schools and daycare centres.  However, these complaints illustrate that the New Zealand Code still contains a number of key loopholes that are common to regulation on food marketing to children in other jurisdictions.

The first of these is the need to identify advertising that is targeted to or appeals to children, as distinct from families or parents. While the Code contain a relatively strong definition of advertising that is targeted to children, it can still allows advertisers to use creative content that children find appealing. Coke asserts that it doesn’t market its products to children under 12, and claims that the association of Coke with Christmas and Santa is aimed at families rather than children. This ignores the fact that, as the Complaints Board has pointed out, Santa and Christmas have significant appeal to children, and marketing using this imagery is likely to be attractive and persuasive to children, regardless of the target audience. However, in the second complaint the Board held that Coke’s ads were not targeted to children as they appeared in media with large adult or family audiences, despite using imagery that appealed to children. In short, Coke respects the letter but ignores the spirit of its own self-imposed restriction – and in this instance, the Code permitted it to do so.

The second problem is that the NZ code (and other self-regulatory codes) continue to exclude some marketing techniques commonly used by food companies. As illustrated by the second complaint, these include brand advertising, where companies promote a particular brand, but not the products associated with that brand, which may be unhealthy. By imposing restrictions on the types of products advertised to children, the Code allows companies like Coke to circumvent restrictions by marketing only the Coca-Cola brand without featuring images of the product itself.

A third problem is that these codes are based on a single advertisement model. The Board may uphold a complaint about one advertisement, but its determination doesn’t necessarily address a sophisticated, widespread campaign that promotes a product across a number of different platforms. Further, a complaints-based system only puts a tiny dent in children and young people’s cumulative, on-going exposure to a large volume of unhealthy food marketing.

This last issue is partly due to deficiencies in the governance processes attached to self-regulatory codes, in addition to loopholes in their substantive terms and conditions. Frequently, there are no sanctions for non-compliance, nor is there any kind of systematic, independent monitoring of compliance, meaning that it’s up to advocacy groups to identify problematic ads and report them to complaint bodies.

We have legislative restrictions on false and misleading food advertising. Given the problems with self-regulatory codes on unhealthy food marketing to children, perhaps it’s time for legislation on that issue too.

 

ACCC v Heinz: A significant win for public health

shredz.png

In a significant victory for public health, Australia’s Federal Court has held that Heinz engaged in misleading and deceptive conduct in the marketing of a snack food targeted to toddlers (ACCC v Heinz [2018] FCA 360). The case should be seen as a win for public health not just because of the final outcome, but also because of the Court’s discussion of the World Health Organisation guidelines on sugar consumption, as well as parents’ purchasing habits and children’s health.

The case followed a complaint laid by the Obesity Policy Coalition in 2015 about the marketing of a product called “Shredz” which formed part of Heinz’s “Little Kids” range, targeted to children aged 1-3 years. This product consisted of a chewy fruit-flavoured “stick” that was sold in an 18g packet of five sticks. Each box contained five 18g packets of the product, which came in three flavours: berry, peach, and fruit and chia.

The packaging for each of the three flavours varied slightly, but each featured a stylized representation of a tree on the front of the box, with an image of a smiling boy climbing the ladder (see picture above). At the base of the tree was a photograph of various pieces of fruit, sweetcorn kernels, and pieces of pumpkin, along with a prominent depiction of four sticks of the product. Among the text on the front of the box were the words “99% fruit and veg”, “No preservatives” and “No artificial colours or flavours.” The back of the box included the text “Made with 99% fruit and vegetable juice and purees…. Our range of snacks and meals encourages your toddler to independently discover the delicious taste of nutritious food. With our dedicated nutritionists who are also mums, we aim to inspire a love of nutritious food that lasts a life time.” A side panel on the box stated that “Our wide range of snacks and meals is packed with the tasty goodness of vegetables, fruits, grains, meat and pasta to provide nutritious options for your toddler.”

The back of the box also featured an ingredients list and a nutrition information panel required by the Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code. The ingredients list revealed that the product contained 36% apple paste and 31% apple juice concentrate, with the remainder of the product comprising berry, peach, or strawberry puree (approximately 10%), sweetcorn puree (10%) ,and pumpkin puree (10%) (with the fruit and chia version also containing chia seeds). Due to the reliance on apple paste and apple juice concentrate, over two-thirds of the product consisted of sugar.

Before Justice White in the Federal Court, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) alleged that the packaging of each product contravened ss 18, 29(1)(a), 29(1)(g) and 33 of the Australian Consumer Law, which is contained in a schedule to the Competition and Consumer Act 2010 (Cth).

Section 18 was the key provision in the case. It provides that “[a] person must not, in trade or commerce, engage in conduct that is misleading or deceptive, or is likely to mislead or deceive.” Section 29 provides that “[a] person must not, in trade or commerce, in connection with the supply or possible supply of goods or services or in connection with the promotion by any means of the supply or use of goods or services (a) make a false or misleading representation that goods are of a particular standard, quality, value, grade, composition, style or model or have had a particular history or particular previous use; or… (g) make a false or misleading representation that goods or services has sponsorship, approval, performance characteristics, accessories, uses or benefits…”

Section 33 provides that “[a] person must not, in trade or commerce, engage in conduct that is liable to mislead the public as to the nature, manufacturing process, the characteristics, the suitability for their purpose or the quantity of any goods.”

The ACCC alleged that Heinz had breached these provisions because statements and images on the box impliedly conveyed representations to the effect that the product:

  • Was of an equivalent nutritional value to the natural fruit and vegetables depicted on the packaging;
  • Was a nutritious food and was beneficial to the health of children aged 1-3 years; and
  • Encouraged the development of healthy eating habits for children aged 1-3 years.

At the outset, Justice White commented that the issue for the Court to determine was whether (a) the specific representations alleged by the ACCC were made, and if so, (b) whether they were misleading and deceptive (or in the case of s 33, liable to mislead). The Court was not required to determine other issues raised during the hearing, including whether the product had an inappropriate amount of sugar per se, and whether it would be sensible for parents to give the product to their children as an alternative to fruit and vegetables. The focus of the Court was on whether the product packaging made specific representations alleged by the ACCC, and if so, whether those representations were false and misleading.

Focusing on the berry version of the product, Justice White found that representations (a) and (c) above could not be established. However, Justice White held that the packaging would convey to the ordinary and reasonable consumer – here the ordinary and reasonable parent of a toddler – that the product was nutritious and beneficial to the health of toddlers (representation (b)).

For the purposes of the case, the ACCC had obtained internal documents from Heinz, which enabled scrutiny of the processes used to manufacture the product, and the way in which it was marketed. One of these documents discussed a “brand refresh,” which indicated that Heinz intended to use the product packaging to promote Shredz as nutritious and healthy.

However, Justice White held that “[e]ven a cursory examination of the packaging indicates that Heinz was promoting the Berries Product as being healthy and nutritious and that ordinary reasonable consumers would have understood that that was so.” [99] Imagery on the packaging, including depictions of a healthy young boy climbing a tree, combined with statements that the product comprised 99% fruit and vegetables, gave the impression of nutritiousness and health. The ingredient list and nutrition information panel (which indicated that Shredz comprised 60% sugar) would not detract from this overall impression, as they were on the back of the box, in smaller print, and could be regarded as “fine print.” Particularly in the context of a busy supermarket trip, ordinary, reasonable parents were likely to pass over them, “and to respond to the dominant message conveyed by the more prominent words and imagery.” [101]

Having established that the product packaging conveyed a representation that the product was a nutritious food and beneficial for the health of toddlers, Justice White then considered whether this representation was false and misleading. In determining this issue, Justice White made extensive reference to expert witness evidence led by the ACCC and Heinz. Central to the ACCC’s case was the evidence led by Dr Rosemary Stanton, a prominent Australian nutritionist. One of Heinz’s witnesses included a consultant nutritionist who had a “continuing association” with the Australian sugar industry, which was not disclosed in his written report, raising concerns about his independence.

In establishing that representation (b) was misleading and deceptive, the ACCC placed particular reliance on the fact that the product was high in sugar. Justice White held that while the ACCC could not establish that the product was not nutritious (given that it contained some nutrients necessary for human life), the high levels of sugar in the product were not beneficial to the health of toddlers. In coming to this conclusion, Justice White referred to the World Health Organisation’s 2015 guideline for sugar intake for adults and children, which recommends that intake of free sugars be reduced to less than 10% of total energy intake, (or conditionally, to less than 5% of total energy intake), in order to maintain a healthy weight and good dental health. “Free sugars” are defined to include those present in fruit juices and concentrates.

Evidence from Dr Stanton showed that one 18g serve of the product was 19% higher in sugar than one 100g serve of fruit and vegetables. Further, a single 18g serve of Shredz contained just under three teaspoons of free sugars, more than one half of the recommended daily intake of free sugars for 1-2 year olds, and over 35% for three year olds. Justice White also referred to statistics on sugar intake in Australia, including that 2-3 year olds have an average daily intake of free sugars of 9-10 teaspoons, well in excess of the WHO guidelines, and that the majority of free sugars are consumed from energy-dense, nutrient-poor “discretionary” foods and beverages.

Of particular influence on the judge’s decision was evidence of the role of free sugars in promoting tooth decay, given by an “impressive witness” with expertise in child oral health. Dental caries is prevalent among Australian children (with 48% of five year olds having tooth decay that requires treatment such as fillings), and poor diet  (particularly foods and beverages high in sugar) is a key contributing factor to dental decay. Justice White accepted evidence that consumption of the product would increase children’s risk of developing dental caries, due to its stickiness and high sugar content.

Justice White also accepted the ACCC’s submission that an assessment of the dental and other health risks posed by the product needed to take account of other aspects of a toddler’s diet (including that toddlers are likely to consume free sugars from other sources), rather than considering the dietary impact of the product in isolation, as argued by Heinz. This position illustrates the limitations of the food industry’s argument that there are no “bad” foods. When viewed in isolation, it could be argued that a product that contributes half of a child’s recommended sugar intake is not detrimental to health. But this argument is much less persuasive when we consider what a toddler is likely to eat over an entire day – even a child with a relatively healthy diet.

Given the high level of sugar contained in a single serve of Shredz, and taking into account the totality of children’s diets (and likely free sugar consumption from other sources), Justice White concluded that it was “not easy to accept that consumption of that amount of sugar in a single snack can be regarded as beneficial to the health of 1-3 year olds.’ This was particularly so given that excess weight and obesity are a significant problem among Australian children (with more than a quarter of Australian being overweight or obese), and having regard to the role of sugars in the development of dental caries, as well significant problems in achieving good hygiene practices among Australian young children. As the high levels of sugar in the product were not beneficial to the health of toddlers, Justice White concluded that the second representation was misleading and deceptive or was likely to mislead and deceive.

Accordingly, the packaging of the berry version of the product contravened s 18(1) of the Australian Consumer Law. Justice White also reached the same conclusion in relation to the packaging of the peach and fruit and chia versions of the product. The ACCC was not able to establish a contravention of s 29(1)(a) or s 33 of the ACC, but in showing that Heinz had made a misleading and deceptive statement about the healthiness of the product, Justice White held that it had also made a misleading or deceptive statement about the “benefits” of the product for the purpose of s 29(1)(g). Although not required for the purposes of establishing a breach of the relevant provisions, the ACCC also managed to establish that Heinz knew or ought to have known that it had made a representation that the productions were nutritious and beneficial to the health of toddlers, and that this representation was false or misleading.

The outcome of ACCC v Heinz is a clear victory for public health advocates who are concerned about the way in which unhealthy food products are marketed to children and their parents. The case illustrates the valuable role that World Health Organisation guidelines can play in the courts’ consideration of public health issues, in addition to evidence of the growing problems of obesity and poor dental health among Australian children. The case also demonstrates the natural affinities between childhood obesity prevention and improving children’s dental health, which could perhaps be exploited more fully by child health advocates.

However, the case does not address one of the key concerns about the marketing of unhealthy foods and beverages, which is the cumulative impact on children and parents of exposure to a large volume of perfectly legal and truthful food marketing campaigns, appearing in many times, forms, and places. While Australia has stringent restrictions on misleading and deceptive marketing, there is little regulation of the large volume of (truthful) marketing for unhealthy foods, exposure to which makes a small but significant contribution to childhood weight gain.

This problem, and potential solutions, will be discussed in my next blogpost.

IVF stuff-ups and tort liability for loss of genetic affinity

Most of us know Singapore for its excellent airport, excellent food and other diversions.  But a recent decision of Singapore’s Court of Appeal, ACB v Thomson Medical, deserves attention.

The case is noted here.

In this case, a mistake was made in the process of an in vitro-fertilisation procedure involving a Singaporean Chinese woman and her German Caucasian husband.

Mistakenly, the wife’s egg was inseminated with sperm from an unknown Indian donor.

Baby P was born healthy, but with a different skin tone.

The claimant’s affidavit states that the pain and suffering that she suffered as a result, physically, mentally and emotionally, was “beyond words” and was “agonizing” [131].

In Australia and New Zealand, in 2014, nearly 34,000 women underwent nearly 68,000 cycles of assisted reproductive technology (ART), resulting in the birth of 12,875 babies.

With so many ART procedures taking place, it’s inevitable that Australian courts will see claims for loss of genetic affinity as well.

 

Wrongful conception, wrongful birth and loss of genetic affinity claims

Loss of genetic affinity cases are a bit different to the usual claims for wrongful conception and wrongful birth.

In wrongful conception cases, such as negligent sterilisation cases, the breach of duty of care results in the claimant falling pregnant in circumstances when they were seeking professional services in order to avoid doing so.

In other kinds of wrongful birth cases, however, the opposite is the case.  The claimant may have been trying to have a child, but due to the defendant’s breach, the child is born with disabilities in circumstances where, if due care had been shown, the claimant might have had an abortion, or might have avoided having a disabled child because a different IVF embryo would have been implanted.

These are just examples, of course, rather than an exhaustive explanation of wrongful birth claims.

In ACB v Thomson Medical, the claimant claimed the expenses she would incur in raising Baby P, a baby who, by virtue of the lack of genetic affinity with the legal father, would not have been born at all if due care had been shown.

 

Cattanach in the High Court of Australia

In Australia, in the High Court case of Cattanach v Melchior, a majority of the High Court allowed a claim for the costs of bringing the child up, at least until the age of 18 years.

Cattanach was a case where the provider mistakenly failed to investigate and simply accepted the patient’s assurance that her right fallopian tube had been removed when in reality it was still there.

The woman gave birth to a healthy child as a result of the transmigration of an egg from her left ovary to her right fallopian tube.

Following Cattanach, 3 state Parliaments moved swiftly to exclude the costs of upkeep.  In NSW, following amendments to the Civil Liability Act, only the additional costs that arise in caring for a disabled child (who would not have been born at all, but for the defendant’s negligence) can be claimed.

The judgments in Cattanach reflect fundamental disagreements about the nature of the damage suffered by the plaintiffs.

In a negligence claim, proof of damage is an essential element of the claim: it’s not enough merely to show the defendant breached their duty of care.

Justice Gleeson saw the claim for costs of raising and maintaining the child as a claim for a novel form of pure economic loss arising because a parent-child relationship had come into existence [26]-[27].

He didn’t regard the claim as being for economic loss that was consequential upon personal injury (that is, a personal injury taking the form of an unwanted pregnancy), because Mr Cattanach was also a plaintiff.

Overlooking the unwanted physical burden of pregnancy on Mrs Cattanach, and framing the entire claim in terms of pure economic loss, seems remarkable to me, but the deeper point for Justice Gleeson was that he thought Mrs Cattanach’s claim implied that the creation of the parent-child relationship was itself actionable damage.

Whereas in His Honour’s view, that relationship is not primarily financial in nature and is fundamental to society, and assigning an economic value to it is not possible [38].

The majority judges saw things differently.  Justices McHugh and Gummow stated that it was not the relationship or the child that was the damage, but the “burden of the legal and moral responsibilities which arise by reason of the birth of the child” [68].

Their Honours did not accept that the values of respect for human life, the stability of the family unit and the nurture of infant children required courts in Australia to reject a claim for costs of upkeep in circumstances where the child would never have been born but for the defendant’s negligence [76].

 

ACB v Thomson Medical in the Singapore Court of Appeal

The Singaporean case of ACB v Thomson Medical was a bit different, of course, to the High Court case of Cattanach.

Unlike Cattanach, in ACB the claimant was actively trying to conceive.  She wanted a mixed Chinese-German child.  What she got was a mixed German-Indian child.

It had the wrong skin colour.

Singapore is a pretty interesting jurisdiction to run the argument that the lack of genetic affinity, and the differences in physical appearance that followed from this, should be regarded in the eyes of the law as actionable damage or “harm”.

One thing that must be said about the judgment of the Singaporean Court of Appeal is that it is extremely thoughtful and a wonderful example of the judicial craft.

The justices systematically and carefully reviewed caselaw across many jurisdictions – it’s a magnificent case for health lawyers to read in order to come up to speed with wrongful birth claims in common law jurisdictions.

The justices were also honest when it came to making the value choices that they were inevitably required to make.

Ultimately, the court rejected the claim for costs of upkeep for Baby P for the reason that “the duty to maintain one’s child is a duty which lies at the very heart of parenthood, and thus the expenses which are incurred towards the discharge of this estate are not capable of characterisation as a loss” [90].

The court regarded the creation of the parental relationship that arose from Baby P’s birth as giving rise to both financial and non-financial obligations.  The court saw no reason why the financial consequences; that is, the cost of upkeep should be compensable, when the non-pecuniary costs were not [92].  In a poignant passage, their Honours included in these non-pecuniary costs “the hours of lost sleep spent putting [Baby P] to bed; the sorrow and worry endured during a bout of illness; or the simple act of blowing on a spoonful of hot soup before feeding it to her” [91].

If the court were to award damages at all, even for the quantifiable costs of upkeep, it would necessarily mean acknowledging, as actionable damage, aspects of a relationship which is “regarded as socially foundational” [101].

While this as a principled position that a court might reasonably take, I would personally give greater weight to the consequences of such reasoning.  The consequences are to create a zone of immunity where IVF providers don’t have to be answerable for careless conduct.

Denying the costs of upkeep in wrongful birth claims may also exacerbate the economic harm the claimant suffers, especially in circumstances when the claimant was seeking to avoid pregnancy.

 

Loss of genetic affinity

In the second part of its judgment, the Singaporean Court of Appeal went on to explain that the true basis of the claimant’s complaint was the disruption, by negligence, of her desire for a shared genetic link between herself, her husband, and her child [128].

The court concluded that “damage to the [claimant’s] interest in ‘affinity’ is a cognisable injury that should sound in damages” [135].

The court ultimately decided that appropriate compensation would be to award the claimant 30% of the financial costs of raising Baby P, not as costs of upkeep, but as recognition of the interference with her interest in genetic affinity with her child.

Which leads me to say: if it is the social importance, fundamental character or moral integrity of the parental-child relationship that is the basis for denying a claim for costs of upkeep, was it not somewhat odd for the court to nevertheless accept that the absence of a genetic link between the claimant and her child qualified as actionable damage?

Personally, what I find heartening, in fact inspiring, is the way that people can – and do – create families through the sheer force of their love and commitment to each other, irrespective of skin colour or genetic affinity.

We see this with adoption and same-sex families, not to mention second marriages.

These family units are here to stay, and deserve the same measure of protection as families where the heterosexual parents share genetic links.

If awarding damages for the coming-into-existence of an unwanted parent/child relationship is offensive in terms of principle, is it not equally offensive to award damages because the (innocent) child who is the subject of the parental relationship lacks genetic affinity with one of its parents?

 

Appraisal of the decision

The Singaporean Court of Appeal acknowledged that the loss suffered by the claimant was partly the result of a complex mix of biological and social factors, including racial attitudes that might not be praise-worthy.

However, I am puzzled why – if the court was persuaded to take a principled line on the fundamental importance of the family unit by denying a claim for the costs of upkeep – why it didn’t follow that principle through and also reject the claim for damages for loss of genetic affinity.

Families are more than the shared genes between children and their parents.

The “anguish, stigma, disconcertment, and embarrassment suffered by the claimant” [150] in response to the curiosity of others about Baby P’s skin colour might actually be based upon reactions that weaken the family unit, rather than strengthen it.

In summary, I agree with the decision the court reached, but I have reservations about its reasons.

Personally I do not see a claim for costs of upkeep as signalling a disrespect for the value of the family unit, at least when the alternative is to create a zone of immunity within which IVF providers are shielded from the consequences of careless conduct.

If we value families, we need to respect the conditions under which people choose to go into parenthood, especially when they seek to avoid parenthood altogether, and also when they enter IVF arrangements in order to ensure a genetic link with their children.

In recognising an action for loss of genetic affinity, and providing a novel resolution to a claim for wrongful birth,  the Singaporean Court of Appeal was taking a pragmatic path that enabled it both to underscore the fundamental importance of the family unit, while still providing a remedy for the consequences of carelessness in the provision of IVF.

Health law at Sydney Law School

Are you interested in studying health law?  Sydney Law School’s Graduate Diploma in Health Law, and Master of Health Law are open to both lawyers and non-lawyers.  For further information, click here.  For information on Sydney Health Law, the Centre for Health Law at Sydney Law School, click here.

Liability for failure to effectively manage morbidly obese patients: it’s time to look again at Varipatis v Almario – here’s why

What should a GP do with a morbidly obese patient who is in denial about their weight problem?

Although it involved a complex set of facts, it’s time to revisit Almario v Varipatis (No 2) [2012] NSWSC 1578, reversed on appeal (Varipatis v Almario [2013] NSWCA 76).

Doctors should take no comfort in the fact that Dr Varipatis’ liability was reversed on appeal.  It’s doubtful the case would be decided the same way today.  This post explains why.

Judgments in both courts remain important for their discussion about what a GP’s duty of care requires in terms of specialist referral [see box at the end of this post].

In future, more and more Australian GPs will end up managing obesity and its complications.  The problem is only going to get worse, given the changes in the weight distribution of the population, and the reluctance of Australian governments to take prevention seriously.  In 2014-2015, 63.4% of Australian adults – that’s 11.2 million people – were either overweight or obese, and more than 5% had diabetes.

280 Australians develop preventable Type II diabetes each day (one person every five minutes).

Click here for a recent report prepared by Obesity Australia in partnership with PwC on the cost of obesity in Australia.

Revisiting Almario v Varipatis (No 2)

At the time he became a patient of Dr Varipatis, in 1997, Mr Almario had fatty liver disease and diabetes.  Both problems arose from his obesity.  Both problems were risk factors for more severe kinds of liver disease that could progress to cirrhosis and ultimately liver cancer.

However, Mr Almario was in denial about his weight problem, and believed his health problems were due to exposure to toxic chemicals in the workplace.

Mr Almario had previously worked as a cleaner at the Union Carbide Centre at Rhodes in Sydney, which was a contaminated site.  Mr Almario was not directly involved in remediating the site, but had cleaned toilets and showers used by those who were directly involved.

There was no evidence his liver problems were caused by toxic exposures.

Nevertheless, Mr Almario sought out Dr Varipatis because the latter had an interest in nutritional and environmental medicine.

In 2009 Dr Varipatis had been found guilty of unsatisfactory professional conduct for administering high doses of IV vitamin C to a patient with renal disease.

Dr Varipatis treated Mr Almario between August 1997 and February 2011.  Mr Almario developed cirrhosis in 2001, and this progressed to liver cancer in 2011.

Trial court decision

When it reached the NSW Supreme Court in 2012, Mr Almario’s legal case was essentially that Dr Varipatis’ duty of care required him to take active steps to address Mr Almario’s morbid obesity.

Mr Almario had a history of failed weight loss attempts, and given his beliefs about toxic exposures, he was not a compliant patient.  Nevertheless, there were two main opportunities to prevent further deterioration to Mr Almario’s health: to refer him to a multi-disciplinary obesity clinic or endocrinologist; or to refer him for assessment for bariatric surgery (waist band surgery that physically constricts the size of the stomach and the amount of food that can enter it).

Mr Almario’s case was based on the claim that if he had undergone bariatric surgery, then it was likely he would have lost significant weight: this would have halted the progression of liver disease, preventing the cirrhosis and liver cancer that are complications of liver disease.

In his judgment, the trial judge repeatedly said that the patient had the disease of morbid obesity and that it was life threatening: Almario v Varipatis (No 2) [2012] NSWSC 1578 (21 December 2012), [67], [83], [93], [98].

The trial judge found that given Mr Almario’s co-morbidities and history of failed weight loss attempts, a reasonable GP would have referred Mr Almario to a surgeon for assessment for bariatric surgery by mid-1998: [91]-[93].

In addition, the trial judge found that Dr Varipatis breached his duty of care in failing – by mid 1998 – to refer Mr Almario to a specialist in obesity management who could have investigated all options for managing Mr Almario’s morbid obesity: [98].

The trial judge stressed that management of a patient like Mr Almario was not a passive process.  “More pro-active involvement was required” even to the point of making the appointment for Mr Almario to attend an obesity management specialist: [97].

Varipatis on appeal

On appeal, the NSW Court of Appeal considered three issues.

(i) Doctors may have a duty to refer (although it is not an exercise in futility)

The Court of Appeal said unambiguously that a general practitioner’s duty of reasonable care to their patient may require them to encourage the patient to lose weight, and to encourage the patient to accept an appropriate referral.

Basten JA accepted that the duty of reasonable care may require a GP to advise a patient “in unequivocal terms that weight loss is necessary to protect his or her health, to discuss the means by which that may be achieved and to offer (and encourage acceptance of) referrals to appropriate specialists or clinics”: Varipatis v Almario [2013] NSWCA 76, [38].

On the other hand, that didn’t mean the GP has to write futile referrals if the patient has refused to take the doctor’s firm advice.

The duty of care is not an exercise in futility.

In this case, since the plaintiff had historically failed to follow the advice of his GP, the Court of Appeal thought that there could be no breach of duty in failing to “re-refer” the plaintiff to an obesity clinic: Varipatis v Almario [2013] NSWCA 76, [38]-[39], [114], [118].

(ii) Failure to refer for assessment for bariatric surgery was not a breach of duty (but is that a reasonable conclusion today?)

As far as referral for bariatric surgery was concerned, the Court of Appeal found that the weight of evidence did not support a duty to refer for assessment for bariatric surgery in 1998, since at that time the procedure still carried significant risks and was very uncommon: Varipatis v Almario [2013] NSWCA 76, [51][64], [118].

However, general practitioners should find no comfort in this finding.

Bariatric surgery is now much more common and performed on patients with a BMI of ≥40k/m2 or on those with a BMI of 35k/m2 or more and who have co-morbidies such as diabetes or cardiovascular disease.

Over the past 15 years, the number of bariatric procedures processed by the Australian Medicare system has risen from around 1,350 (2000) to more than 16,700 (2015).

(iii) Failure to refer to an hepatologist?

Thirdly, the trial judge, and the Court of Appeal found that even if the plaintiff had been referred to a hepatologist, Mr Varipatis would have failed (in the absence of bariatric surgery) to achieve weight loss.

Obesity was not understood to be a cause of liver disease before 2002, and there was no evidence that a hepatologist would have done anything other than advise the patient to lose weight, or refer the plaintiff to an obesity clinic: Almario v Varpiatis (No 2) [2012] NSWSC 1578, [155]-[157]; Varipatis v Almario [2013] NSWCA 76, [75]-[88], [118].

Understanding about the role of obesity in liver disease has developed since Dr Varipatis was treating Mr Almario, and if this case were re-litigated today, a court would be unlikely to conclude that no harm arose from failure to refer for specialist assessment.

Meagher JA also dismissed the appeal on the basis that a doctor will not be liable if a defendant can prove that, having taken a course of action that was consistent with reasonable care, the harm suffered would not have been avoided on the balance of probabilities.

In his Honour’s view, in circumstances where a doctor could discharge their duty by taking one or more precautions, the defendant doctor need only show that had they taken one of the precautions that was consistent with reasonable care, it would not likely have avoided the harm suffered by the plaintiff: Varipatis v Almario [2013] NSWCA 76, [106], [118].

 

So…why is the Varipatis decision worth re-visiting?

Dr Varipatis was essentially excused by the fact that his patient had a history of being unable or unwilling to follow advice, bariatric surgery for extreme obesity was still unusual in 1998, and because obesity was not understood as a cause of liver disease.

Close to 20 years later, the factual matrix that arose in Varipatis is really a wake-up call for medical practitioners to respond more aggressively and with a clear strategy to patients who present with severe obesity.[1]

Much more would be expected of GPs in 2017, I believe, than was the case in 1998.

Firstly, GPs could be exposed to lawsuits by obese patients who face fatal outcomes or complications as a result of their failure to receive timely assessment and referral.  That follows from basic principles well established in other cases.

Secondly, complaints against GPs might also be directed to the Health Care Complaints Commission, or to the Medical Council of NSW.  In such circumstances, there would be no need to prove that the complainant suffered harm or damage.

Thirdly, and admittedly in more unusual circumstances, health and social service professionals might also be liable for failure to comply with mandatory notification obligations.

Inquest into the death of “AA”

It’s worth considering all three possibilities against the facts that emerged in the Inquest into the Death of “AA”, a decision handed down on 26 September 2014.

On 29 September 2010, a 10 year-old boy called “AA” died quietly on the way to the John Hunter hospital.

He died from hypoxic brain injury following a cardio-respiratory arrest that was caused by his severe obesity, a condition that his parents had failed to address.

His death was largely unnoticed by the media.

It illustrates the wider epidemic of severe pediatric obesity, which is getting worse.

As the weight distribution of the pediatric population has shifted to the right, those on the extreme right (ie cases of severe pediatric obesity) risk falling off the edge.

The Coroner’s report details the interactions over the preceding two and a half years between AA and his school and the John Hunter hospital.

AA had severe obstructive sleep apnea and a history of missed medical appointments that the Coroner found amounted to medical neglect.

AA’s sister and his parents didn’t realize how critical the situation was because AA was frequently drowsy as a result of obstructive sleep apnea (para 237).

The Coroner found that Child Protection Intervention was necessary for AA’s medical condition to be addressed, because his parents were unable to help him.

Obesity and child protection

In a paper published in the Medical Journal of Australia in 2009, Shirley Alexander, Louise Bauer, Bernadette Tobin and I argued that in appropriate circumstances, failure to notify child protection services when parents of a grossly obese child are unable or unwilling to ensure he or she receives adequate support to moderate food intake and improve diet may constitute a breach of mandatory reporting provisions.

A child is at risk of significant harm if the child’s parents or caregivers are “unable or unwilling” for the child to receive “necessary medical care” (Children and Young Persons Care and Protection Act 1998 (NSW) s 23(b)(1)).

Broader determinants

Actions like referring a morbidly obese child to child protection services illustrate individual-specific solutions to a problem that has wider, societal causes.

A smarter, longer-term solution would be to moderate the influences that have contributed to children having the life-threatening disease of severe obesity.

In July 2016, the NSW government set itself a target of reducing overweight and obesity rates in children by 5% over 10 years: see NSW Strategic Plan for Children and Young People.

Reaching this target will require a basket of actions and will inevitably include the need to improve the food environment.

 

GPs duty of care and specialist referral

It has long been clear that doctors can breach their duty of care by failing to refer a patient for further investigation and management by specialists.  For example, in the missed cancer diagnosis case of O’Shea v Sullivan (1994) Aust Torts Reports 81-271, the court referred to the “golden rule” that “abnormal bleeding is due to cancer until proven otherwise”.  In PD v Harvey [2003] NSWSC 487, Cripps AJ found that the failure of GPs not to follow up a patient with HIV to ensure he kept an appointment they made for him at the Royal Prince Alfred Immunology Clinic was also a failure of reasonable care (para 70).  The patient in question went on to deceive (and infect) his sexual partner, who believed he was HIV negative.

[1] See Sally Gleeson, “Almario v Varipatis – A Weight Issue for General Practitioners”, Precedent (Sydney, N.S.W.), No. 121, Mar/Apr 2014: 48-50.