Dr David Nabarro, WHO D-G candidate, on a sugar tax

The World Health Organisation may be in for interesting times if Dr David Nabarro becomes the next Director-General.

Only three candidates are now in the contest.  Two of them were Commissioners of the WHO Commission on Ending Childhood Obesity: Dr Nabarro, from the UK, and Dr Sania Nishtar, from Pakistan (who was Co-Chair of the Commission).

The headline of the Commission’s final report was really the recommendation to governments to implement a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages.

However, according to Fairfax Press, Dr Nabarro has “stepped into the ring to slap down calls for sugar taxes, saying there is not enough evidence on what drives over-eating to justify blunt levies on the ingredient”.

However, Dr Nabarro’s comments raise interesting questions about the direction WHO could take under his leadership.  What role for fiscal interventions to address poor nutrition and diet-related diseases?

National Party  leader Barnaby Joyce has described a sugar tax as “bonkers mad”. (According to Mr Joyce, “bonkers mad” is also a condition shared by renewable energy targets).

According to Fairfax Press, Dr Nabarro cautioned against “blunt regulations” like a sugar tax and noted that the state should only intervene where the intervention has a proven effect in changing behavior.

Well that would depend on the rate of the tax. A growing body of research – examples here, and here – argues that dietary taxes could both raise revenue and improve health outcomes. In ways that subsidised gym memberships, education, personal responsibility and good intentions are unlikely to.

Mexico’s tax on sugary drinks has resulted in an even greater reduction in consumption of sugary drinks – a major source of added sugars in that country – in the second year of operation than in the first year: a 5.5% reduction in purchases of sugary drinks in 2014, rising to nearly 10% in 2015.

Dr Nabarro also distinguished between contagious epidemics, which engage the “pure health sector” and non-communicable diseases, which require inter-sectoral responses across a number of sectors.

The suggestion is that special caution is warranted with non-communicable diseases.

I’m not sure I take the point. Outside of sub-Saharan Africa, the world overwhelmingly dies from non-communicable diseases.

People are not less dead, and prior to death they are not less disabled because the condition crept up on them slowly, due to lifestyle factors that have multiple determinants.

So can we put this down to WHO politics, or is Dr Nabarro foreshadowing a softer line on “big food” and “big soda” if he is elected Director-General?

These are questions he may be asked when he is in Australia later this month.

By the way, in a recent report the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare has estimated that 7% of the burden of disease in Australia is attributable to overweight and obesity (63% of which is fatal burden). Overweight and obesity are responsible for 53% of Australia’s diabetes burden, and 45% of the burden of osteoarthritis.

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!

Upcoming Conferences: Governing Food

Governing Food

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

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

Venue: Sydney Law School

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

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

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

We hope to see you there!

 

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

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further Reading: