Once more with feeling…Barnaby Joyce on the merits of a sugary drinks tax

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Photo: Tongan Health Promotion Foundation

 

When I looked up from marking exams and saw the look on Barnaby Joyce’s face, I just knew he was seeing red about the Grattan Institute’s proposal for a sugary drinks tax, levied at a rate of 40 cents per 100 grams of sugar.

The Grattan Institute report estimates that such a tax would reduce the consumption of sugary drinks by about 15% and generate up to half a billion dollars that could help to pay for a broad array of obesity-related programs.

Imagine!  A public health policy that fights obesity, diabetes and tooth decay AND generates revenue.

The National Party hate the idea.  Deputy Prime Minister and Leader of the Nationals, Barnaby Joyce told reporters:

“If you want to deal with being overweight, here’s a rough suggestion: stop eating so much, and do a bit of exercise.  There’s two bits of handy advice and you get that for free.  The National Party will not be supporting a sugar tax”.

Well that’s what he said.

But here’s what I heard: “We know that obesity and diabetes are out of control.  But we have ideological objections to being part of the solution”.

The same day that Minister Joyce shared these thoughts with reporters, the Australian Food and Grocery Council issued a press release saying that it was seeking a “constructive response to obesity”.

“Obesity is a serious and complex public health issue with no single cause or quick-fix solution”, explained the AFGC, but “it is not beneficial to blame or tax a single component of the diet”.

With most complex issues, you start somewhere.  You come up with evidence-informed policies and you try them out.  You rigorously evaluate their performance, and learn by doing.

But not with obesity.  “Complexity” is the new enemy of action.  Since the causes of obesity are complex, every “single” policy advanced in response can be dismissed as a dangerously simplistic solution to a complex problem.

Welcome to obesity, the problem we’re not allowed to start to fix.

Except with personal responsibility, of course.

 

Personal responsibility…the answer to obesity, traffic accidents, terrorism, Zika virus, perhaps everything?

In a limited sense, Barnaby Joyce is right.

The only cure for personal obesity is personal responsibility.

But personal responsibility has turned out to be a spectacularly poor solution to “societal obesity”.

By societal obesity, I am referring to the trend towards overweight and obesity that has arisen over the past few decades and now affects the majority of adult men and women (and more than one in four children).

Since each of us is an individual, and because we live in a culture that prizes individual autonomy, it’s easy to fall into the trap of believing that individual effort, personal motivation, is the solution to the world’s ills.

But just as the global epidemics of obesity and diabetes were not caused by a catastrophic, global melt-down in personal responsibility, personal responsibility is equally unlikely to provide the magic solution.

That’s where public policies come in.

Governments know all this, but with the exception of tobacco control, they seem reluctant to apply their knowledge in the area of preventive health.

The fact is, from road traffic accidents to terrorism, smart governments:

  • acknowledge the complexity of the factors that contribute to societal problems;
  • They acknowledge that multiple interventions are needed, in many settings;
  • They acknowledge that possible solutions need to be trialled now, under conditions of uncertainty, instead of handing the problem to future generations.
  • They monitor the actions they take, because healthy public policy is a dynamic, ongoing process; and finally
  • They give a damn.  Meaning that they recognise they are accountable to the community for helping to solve difficult, societal problems, and for the performance of the public policies they administer.

Imagine if Australia’s government took that approach with obesity.

 

The debate about a sugary drinks tax is here to stay: it will never go away

A tax on sugary drinks will get National Party politicians in trouble with sugar producers, and Liberal Party politicians in trouble with big food.

The real problem is that it might work.  Based on the experience of Mexico, a sugary drinks tax will very likely cause consumers to purchase fewer sugary drinks.

Despite batting it away, a tax on sugary drinks is on the public agenda, and it’s here to stay.  I don’t see the sugary drinks industry winning on this issue indefinitely.

Partly because Australian health researchers will keep it on the agenda.

It will come back, and back.  Especially as evidence of its success accumulates overseas.

One conversation worth having is how revenues from a sugary drinks tax might support agricultural producers in rural Australia, helping to cushion them from the adverse effects (if any) of the tax and creating incentives for the production of a sustainable and healthy food supply.

That is simply one question worth considering during the process of developing a national nutrition policy (which we don’t currently have).

In the meantime, Australian health advocates need to broaden their base.

Advocacy for public policy action on obesity needs to become more closely integrated with advocacy on food security.   And advocacy in both areas needs to be linked more closely to action on reducing health inequalities.

But enough about all that.  You really came here for Barnaby, didn’t you?

OK, here he is:

The ATO is not a better solution than jumping in the pool and going for a swim. The ATO is not a better solution than reducing your portion size. So get yourself a robust chair and a heavy table and, halfway through the meal, put both hands on the table and just push back. That will help you lose weight.”

Sydney Health Law’s Food Governance Conference

 

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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!

WHO Commission on Ending Childhood Obesity presents final report and recommendations

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The World Health Organisation’s Commission on Ending Childhood Obesity, appointed by WHO Director-General Dr Margaret Chan in 2014, has now formally presented its final report.

The Commission was co-chaired by Sir Peter Gluckman, the Chief Science Advisor to the Prime Minister of New Zealand, and Dr Sania Nishtar, the founder and President of Heartfile, a health policy think tank based in Pakistan.

The Commission held hearings in all 6 WHO regions, and was supported by two technical working groups: the Ad Hoc WG on Science and Evidence, and the Ad Hoc WG on Implementation, Monitoring and Accountability.

In 2014, an estimated 41 million children under 5 years of age were either overweight or obese (this is defined as the proportion of children whose weight for height scores are more than 2 standard deviations, or more than 3 standard deviations, respectively, from the WHO growth standard median).

The Commission’s strategic approach rests on three categories of interventions:

  • interventions to tackle the obesogenic environment in order to improve the healthy eating and physical activity behaviours of children;
  • interventions targeting critical stages of the lifecourse; ie (i) preconception and pregnancy; (ii) infancy and early childhood; and (iii) older childhood and adolescence;
  • interventions to treat obese children in order to improve their current and future health.

A number of the Commission’s recommendations addressing the obesogenic environment, and critical stages of the lifecourse, in particular, confirm the role for law and regulation in improving the food and physical activity environment for children.

In a move sure to thrill the fizzy drinks industry, the Commission has called on countries to implement an effective tax on sugar-sweetened beverages, and noted that some countries may also consider a tax on foods high in fats or sugar.

Noting “unequivocal evidence that the marketing of unhealthy foods and sugar-sweetened beverages is related to childhood obesity”, the Commission has called on countries to implement the WHO’s Set of Recommendations on the Marketing of Foods and Non-alcoholic Beverages to Children.   It has also called for cooperation between Member States of the World Health Assembly to reduce the impact of cross-border marketing of unhealthy foods and beverages.

The Commission has called for a standardised global nutrient labelling system, as well as the implementation of interpretive front-of-pack nutritional labelling supported by public education to improve nutritional literacy.  Interpretive food labelling has consistently been a highly contested area of food law and policy.  For example, the European Food Industry reportedly spent 1 billion euro to ensure that front-of-pack traffic light labeling did not become a Europe-wide standard.  Traffic light labels interpret the quality of the nutrition of food by means of highly visible red, amber and green symbols that correspond to the amount of saturated fat, salt and added sugar in the product.

The Commission’s recommendation that schools, child-care settings and children’s sports facilities should be required to create healthy food environments may also require legislation or regulations for successful implementation in some countries.  The Commission has also specifically recommended that countries eliminate the sale or provision of unhealthy foods, such as sugar-sweetened beverages and energy-dense, nutrient-poor foods, in schools.

In the United States, the federal government subsidises the provision of breakfasts and lunches served at school to children from low-income families.  This has enabled the US Department of Agriculture to issue regulations  requiring schools that participate in the national school lunch and breakfast program to improve the nutritional quality of the foods that are served.   However, these standards have faced relentless opposition from the junk food industry and from Congress.  Mandatory standards to improve the nutritional quality of school food have been introduced in a number of jurisdictions, including England and Scotland.

Other recommendations that may require legislative or executive action include the enforcement of the International Code of Marketing of Breast-milk Substitutes and subsequent resolutions of the World Health Assembly (WHA).

The Commission’s report will be presented to the members of the WHA in May 2016, where further actions may be taken to support the implementation of the Commission’s recommendations.

Those with an interest in obesity should also keep an eye out for the report of the Lancet Commission on Obesity, co-chaired by Professor Boyd Swinburn (University of Auckland), and Professor Bill Dietz (George Washington University).  In this paper, Professors Swinburn and Dietz outline the work of their Commission.

 

 

The role of law in noncommunicable disease prevention: an easy-to-digest explanation

Public health lawyers like me are often challenged on their claim that the law can (and should) play a significant role in the prevention of noncommunicable diseases (NCDs). Future Leaders, an Australian philanthropic organisation, has recently published an open-access, clearly written book on NCD prevention called Dancing in the Rain: Living with NCDs, which includes a chapter by Professor Larry Gostin and I on the role of law in NCD prevention. Here we describe the growing global governance framework for NCD prevention, and the range of new initiatives that governments around the world are using to combat NCDs, including measures that draw upon law and regulation. We contrast this widespread global innovation with Australia’s failure to take decisive action in relation to the prevention of obesity and excessive alcohol consumption, asking why Australia has ended up as a ‘laggard’ in these areas when it remains the world leader in tobacco control. This is an easy-to-digest introduction to the interaction between law and NCD prevention, and it sits alongside a number of other insightful chapters from prominent Australian activists and academics, including Dr Alessandro Demaio, Professor Fiona Stanley, and Professor Rob Moodie.

Dancing in the Rain is accessible in full via the following link: http://bit.ly/1QoDyLS

Dancing on Christopher Hitchens’ grave? The tricky business of talking about consequences

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Vanity Fair, February 2004

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A “pro-smoking blogger for the libertarian right”  accuses me of “dancing on Christopher Hitchens’ grave”.

And other stuff.

Christopher Snowdon is a Research Fellow for the UK-based Institute of Economic Affairs, a think tank that receives tobacco funding.  He is an opponent of plain tobacco packaging, keeper of the pure flame of libertarianism etc.

My sin – contained in a paper forming part of a symposium on public health regulation and the “nanny state”, was to reflect on a self-confessed “crime spree” Hitchens took in New York City  in late 2003.

During the course of an autumn day, Hitchens broke as many of the city’s “petty ordinances” as he could, particularly its smoke-free laws.

At the time, Michael Bloomberg was in the second year of his first, 4-year term as NYC Mayor.  He went on to serve 3 full terms, introducing tobacco control laws that saw the adult smoking rate fall by 28% between 2002 and 2012, and the youth smoking rate fall by 52% between 2001-2011 .

Which is a terrible result, if you’re a tobacco company, but a magnificent result for New Yorkers – with changed life trajectories and longer, healthier lives for hundreds of thousands of people.

You can read about Michael Bloomberg’s public health legacy here.

Apparently embittered at the constraints on his smoking, Hitch lashed out, reflecting on the “shriveled core of the tiny Bloombergian mind”, and ending with:

“Who knows what goes on in the tiny, constipated chambers of his mind? All we know for certain is that one of the world’s most broad-minded and open cities is now in the hands of a picknose control freak.”

The editor of Vanity Fair, Graydon Carter, who at the time was being serially fined by the NYC Health Department for flouting its smoke-free laws and smoking in his office, published the whole account.

Then, in June 2010, at the height of his powers, Hitchens announced he had cancer  of the oesophagus.  As one journalist wrote, “The celebrated drinker and smoker who once claimed that “booze and fags are happiness” had succumbed to a cancer most often associated with drinking and smoking.”

Hitchens died less than 18 months later.

Like his hero Hitchens, Snowdon believes that smoke-free laws are anti-libertarian.  The mind boggles at this point, given that globally, one in ten people who die from tobacco are non-smokers who are unintentionally harmed (poisoned) by smokers….

However, to my mind the more interesting theme that excites Snowdon is the question of whether Hitchens’ diagnosis challenged his libertarian convictions.  Snowdon assumes that the rationale for discussing this issue was to concoct some sort of contrived, deathbed confession:

“Magnusson clearly thinks that Hitchens got his comeuppance when he died of cancer and wants to believe that he renounced his principles on his death bed.”

The record shows that Christopher Hitchens castigated those who promoted effective tobacco control, yet spoke frankly and publicly about his own cancer, acknowledging that it was probably caused by his smoking and drinking.

Hitchens made his choices, and talked about them freely.  He made his private life a public matter.

So we have permission, I think, to talk about Hitchens – who I suspect would have approved of being the topic of conversation.

“I’ve come by this particular tumor honestly”, he told Anderson Cooper on CNN in August 2010.  “If you smoke, which I did for many years very heavily with occasional interruption, and if you use alcohol, you make yourself a candidate for it in your sixties.” “I might as well say to anyone who might be watching – if you can hold it down on the smokes and the cocktails you may be well advised to do so”.

Cooper responded “That’s probably the subtlest anti-smoking message I’ve ever heard”.

“The other ones tend to be more strident”, Hitchens replied, “and for that reason, easy to ignore”.

“Even if this weren’t incredibly tasteless” Snowdon writes, “Magnusson could hardly have found a less fitting person to use as an example.”

Snowdon seems to think that the point of discussing Hitchens is to trip him up on his words, seek to make an object lesson out of him, or worse, to gloat.

But there are other reasons why Hitchens’ account of his illness is worth reflecting on.

Certainly, it was a compelling story. Statistics are easy to brush off: just ask a smoker.  But stories are a little harder.

Here comes this libertarian prophet – as sure as any libertarian ever was about the infantilising effect of public health laws – suddenly forced to come face to face with his own premature (and probably preventable) death.  Did he have conflicting feelings, second thoughts?  It’s not an unfair question.

“In whatever kind of a ‘race’ life may be”, Hitchens wrote  in 2010, “I have very abruptly become a finalist….In one way, I suppose, I have been ‘in denial’ for some time, knowingly burning the candle at both ends … .[F]or precisely that reason, I can’t see myself smiting my brow with shock or hear myself whining about how it’s all so unfair … . Instead, I am badly oppressed by a gnawing sense of waste. I had real plans for my next decade and felt I’d worked hard enough to earn it. Will I really not live to see my children married?  To watch the World Trade Center rise again?

Through his story, we catch a glimpse of the public interest that public health laws and policies are intended to protect.

The public interest in tobacco and alcohol control laws does not exist for the sake of some abstracted, disembodied “public”, but ultimately for the sake of all those individuals who might otherwise die prematurely, or just as frequently, as Simon Chapman writes, live long in distress and isolation due to the disintegrating impacts of their illness.

Bloomberg’s tobacco control laws were intended to help prevent the kind of death Hitchens died.  To say that is not to gloat.

Consequences tend to be trivialised or absent when libertarians set out their plans for how the world ought to be.

The narrative we tend to get is the one written by the be-suited Hitchens in 2003, flying through Central Park with his feet off the bicycle pedals, witty, cancer-free, not the man 7 years later, who writes  “The chest hair that was once the toast of two continents hasn’t yet wilted, but so much of it was shaved off for various hospital incisions that it’s a rather patchy affair. I feel upsettingly de-natured. If Penélope Cruz were one of my nurses, I wouldn’t even notice”.

How should public health advocates talk about consequences?

In the United States, gun enthusiasts have become so highly proficient at ignoring consequences that anyone who dares link the most recent gun-related massacre [insert dates & details] with that shocking, leftist, evil thing called “gun control” – is howled down for seeking to “politicise a personal tragedy“.

Plenty of compelling stories, it seems, but never a teachable moment.

But for the rest of us, prevention matters because people matter.  Their needless suffering or death is relevant to how we evaluate the wisdom of government actions, laws and policies.

The nanny state conspiracy theorists overstate their case.  Hitchens’ freedom to make choices about smoking, drinking, diet and lifestyle were his for the taking.  No one stood in his way.

Hitchens had no Damascus conversion over tobacco, or anything else for that matter, but his public expressions of regret were no less powerful for their subtlety.

[Interview between Anderson Cooper (CNN) and Christopher Hitchens, 6 August 2010: http://www.democraticunderground.com/discuss/duboard.php?az=view_all&address=385×492527 (transcript);  http://ac360.blogs.cnn.com/2010/08/07/video-extended-interview-hitchens-on-cancer-and-atheism/ (video).]

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The ACT sin bins junk food ads on buses

The ACT has taken steps to ban fast-food ads on buses. Image from abc.net
The ACT has taken steps to ban fast-food ads on buses. Image from abc.net

The ACT attracted media attention this week for becoming the first Australian jurisdiction to regulate ride-sharing services like Uber. But the ACT’s also been active in an area that’s close to the heart of many public health advocates: regulation of junk food and alcohol advertising. Promotions for these products will be banned on ACTION buses, along with ads for gambling, fossil fuels, and weapons, under a strict new government policy.

While derided by critics as another example of the “Nanny State” in action, the move represents a win when it comes to protecting children from junk food promotion. In discussing the ban, the ACT Minister for Territory and Municipal Services acknowledged that “[i]t’s quite clear that junk food advertising is targeted at children, in many many places it’s quite pervasive and… buses are just another example of that… we need to make sure that kids are getting a healthier message given the level of childhood obesity we see in our community.”

There’s little appetite for stronger restrictions on junk food ads at the federal level, despite the National Preventative Health Taskforce recommending legal measures to reduce children’s exposure to junk food ads back in 2008. This was followed by several attempts by The Greens party to introduce legislative amendments that would restrict junk food promotions on television. As with tobacco control, maybe legislative restrictions on junk food marketing to children need to start at the local level and work their way up.

The ACT’s policy also reflects growing government interest in “walking the talk” when it comes to obesity prevention, including by restricting the sale and promotion of unhealthy foods and beverages within government institutions. For example, New York City has developed a nutrition policy for all foods purchased, served, or contracted for by City agencies. Across the ditch, the New Zealand Ministry of Health has told all District Health Boards to stop selling soft drink in hospitals. Bans on junk food advertising in government-owned institutions, and on government-owned transport services, could form part of a package of measures that ensure that government agencies take a consistent stance on the importance of good nutrition and preventing weight gain. As noted by the ACT Minister for Territory and Municpal Services, if governments are seeking to promote healthier food to children, “leaving junk food advertising off the buses helps contribute to that overall objective of delivering a healthier message to our kids.”

The NZ Health Ministry has called on District Health Boards to stop selling soft drink.
The NZ Health Ministry has called on District Health Boards to stop selling soft drink.

Bundaberg Rum and Dora the Explorer: the reality of alcohol advertising in Australia

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A brief commercial break, then on with the show…

My 3-year old daughter loves Dora the Explorer.  She thinks that bossy little know-it-all, Dora, is really cool.  She used to be frightened of The Swiper, but that changed as she grew older.

Last night, I sat her down in front of a laptop and let her watch an episode of Dora on YouTube.  Right away an ad filled the screen for Bundaberg Rum.  Bundaberg Rum is a brand owned by Diageo Australia.  All of this happened mid-evening, before 9pm.

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This is the reality of alcohol advertising in Australia.  Liquor ads, bought and paid for by Australian drinks manufacturers, streamed online with children’s content.

It’s not unlawful.  It’s business as usual.

This is the kind of thing the Alcohol Advertising Review Board draws attention to in its latest report.

A product review by a 12 year-old for Vodka Cruiser Pineapple Passion Punch 2L, on the Dan Murphy website (owned by Woolworths). Johnny Walker and Smirnoff ads screened in cinemas  before “Minions” – an animated film, rated PG.  Alcohol ads plastered over bus stops outside schools (see p 17 of the report).  And so on.

If you don’t want your pre-schooler exposed to liquor ads while watching age-appropriate material online, what are your options?

First stop: The Alcoholic Beverages Advertising Code (ABAC).  According to ABAC, “The ABAC Scheme is the centrepiece of Australia’s quasi-regulatory system and is administered by a Management Committee which includes industry, advertising and government representatives.”

The ABAC Code and complaints scheme are not legally binding, but members of the Brewers Association of Australia and New Zealand, the Distilled Spirits Industry Council of Australia and the Winemakers’ Federation of Australia are signatories.

The ABAC Code places few real constraints on signatories, but it enables the alcohol industry to claim that alcohol advertising is regulated responsibly, at no cost to government.  Which would be great, if it were true.

The ABAC Code places no restrictions on the placement of an alcohol advertisement.

If you’re a drinks manufacturer who wants to advertise on the internet – including on websites that carry or are even devoted to children’s content – the ABAC Code has no problem with it.

For example, when Crown Lager ads appeared on a “Bratz” games website (and check out the URL to see what I mean ), the complaint was dismissed  because the ABAC Code was designed not to apply to the placement of alcohol ads.

An independent complaints scheme, the Alcohol Advertising Review Board, points out the limitations of the ABAC, and administers its own Codes, with help from a panel of lay members located around the country.

The Content Code is constructed from provisions in existing alcohol advertising codes from around the world.  The Placement Code, however, “features provisions by which the Board considers the placement of alcohol advertising should be governed”.

The Placement Code contains the following provisions:

1. Placement: General

Alcohol Advertisements should not be placed: (i) in places or at broadcast times where Young People are exposed or are likely to be exposed; or (ii) in connection with content that appeals to Young People.

8. Internet

Alcohol Advertisements shall not appear online in connection with content that appeals or is likely to appeal to Young People.

As a parent, those constraints appear entirely reasonable to me.

By the way, you have to love the “Drink Wise” logo in the second screen shot above.  You probably missed it.  After all, it was designed to be missed.

For further comment on this in the Sydney Morning Herald and Fairfax press, click here.

A Fairfax video reporting on this blogpost, containing the images included in this post, has now been added to YouTube.

AdNews has reported that Diageo has suspended all media across the YouTube platform while it investigates the matters raised above.

This incident provides an interesting opportunity to test the limits or otherwise of the ABAC Code.  Accordingly, I have submitted a complaint.

Are you interested in studying health law?  For further information on Sydney Law School’s Master of Health Law and Graduate Diploma programs, follow this link.