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.

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.

Queensland’s Healthy Futures Commission

Health promotion in Queensland could receive a turbo-boost if the Healthy Futures Commission Queensland Bill 2017 is passed.

This Bill illustrates a sometimes neglected aspect of public health law: use of law to build new institutions, to encourage partnerships, and to create a clear legislative mandate to address health challenges.

The Healthy Futures Commission was an election commitment by the Palaszczuk Labor Government.

It is intended to help achieve two measures of success set out in Queensland Health’s 10 year vision and strategy.  These are to:

  • Reduce childhood obesity by 10%; and
  • Increase levels of physical activity by 20% (p 15/28).

The Bill would establish the Healthy Futures Commission Queensland, a portfolio agency within the Health Ministry.

Its purpose is to “support the capacity of children and families to adopt a healthy lifestyle”, and contribute to the reduction of health inequalities for children and families (s 3).

The functions of the Committee include: advocating for the social conditions and environments necessary to support healthier lifestyles and reduce health inequalities, and developing partnerships (s 9).

The Commission has power to make grants on matters relating to its functions, to industry or community organisations, universities, local governments, and business entities.  The source of funding for these grants would be the Healthy Futures Queensland fund established by the Bill (s 41), which is also the funding source for the Commission’s own costs and expenses.

Queensland’s Minister for Health and Ambulance Services, Cameron Dick, has stated the Commission will have a budget of $20 million over three years.

The Bill requires that at least 55% of total funding shall be paid out as grants (s 41(4)).  This reflects the importance of the Commission’s grants function, and appears to be intended to ensure that the majority of funds are expended on “real world” interventions and projects addressing healthier eating and physical activity.  This funding requirement also creates a natural check on the size of the Commission itself.

The Commission must prepare an annual project funding plan each year for approval by the Board and the Minister (s 42).

In performing its functions, the Commission is required to take into account the social determinants of health, as understood in the Rio Political Declaration on Social Determinants of Health, as well as the needs of vulnerable groups experiencing health inequity including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.

The Commission is not entirely independent of politics and must comply with any direction given by the Health Minister about the performance of the Commission’s functions (s 10).  The Minister may request reports from the Commission on relevant matters but may not give directions about the content of any such report (s 11).

Queensland LNP Senator Barry O’Sullivan has called for the Qld Health Minister to instruct the Commission never to recommend a sugar tax.

According to Senator O’Sullivan, the Commission “should focus on promoting personal responsibility to reduce obesity.”

Readers of this blog will already have picked up on the message that the National Party doesn’t like sugary drinks taxes.

However, outside of Australia, as a recent paper by Sarah Roach and Lawrence Gostin points out, sugary drinks taxes are gaining momentum, encouraging reductions in consumption of sugary drinks, raising revenues for government, educating consumers and at least in the UK, driving reformulation.

Queensland’s Healthy Futures Commission would be governed by a 6-member Board appointed by the Governor in Council on the recommendation of the Minister.  Board members must have qualifications or experience in business, law, leading partnerships, or assessing the impact of social conditions on health equity.  Board members are appointed to 4 year terms (and may be re-appointed) (s 16).

The Board is empowered to establish committees, whose membership could include appropriate external experts, to assist it to perform its functions (s 29).

Promoting health goals in a self-regulating industry

Earlier this year I published an article on self-regulation of food marketing to children in Australia. I focused on two voluntary codes developed by the Australian food industry to respond to concerns about children’s exposure to junk food advertising, and how it might affect their eating habits. My article pointed out the many loopholes in food industry self-regulation, mirroring other concerns expressed about regulation of junk food marketing to children, and described how the Australian regulatory regime might be strengthened.

Jane Komsky recently published a blog post on my paper on The Regulatory Review, the blog of the Penn Program on Regulation. We republish Jane’s post below, with the kind permission of The Review.

Parliament House in Canberra, Australia

Tony the Tiger. Ronald McDonald. Cap’n Crunch. What do these three characters have in common?

They are all memorable characters that children love—which is why the Australian food industry does not hesitate to use them to promote foods widely thought to be unhealthy.

According to Professor Belinda Reeve of Sydney Law School, food marketing in Australia has contributed significantly to the country’s increased rate of childhood obesity. Reeve argues that childhood obesity often leads to low self-esteem, bullying, and major health problems, such as diabetes and heart disease. Thus, limiting children’s exposure to unhealthy food marketing could help lower the rate and risk of the condition, says Reeve.

In response to this growing concern about the effects of unhealthy food marketing to children, the World Health Organization (WHO) encourages countries to adopt effective regulatory measures. While the WHO offers guidance for the design and implementation of regulatory measures, the Australian regulatory regime prefers to allow the food industry to regulate itself. For example, the food industry developed “voluntary pledges” where companies agreed to advertise only healthier products to children, restrict their use of product placement, and report annually on their compliance.

Although self-regulation of food marketing can be effective, Reeve argues that the self-regulation route does not typically work in industries that have economic motives not to comply. She posits that the food industry in Australia continues to promote its own private interests at the expense of public health goals. Ideally, according to Reeve, the industry should be put on “notice” that unless the industry players actively advance public health goals, the government regulators will intervene with more oversight and regulations over the industry, a so-called responsive regulatory approach.

The Australian food industry, through its voluntary self-regulation program, adopted only very narrow regulations, which focus strictly on food advertisements specifically directed at young children, says Reeve. Reeve explains that food companies avoid regulation by creating advertisements “officially” targeting adults and families, instead of young children, while simultaneously using animated characters that children find appealing. Reeve urges a “significant expansion” to the existing rules to close off these loopholes.

In addition to permitting child-friendly advertising, the current Australian advertising system fails to limit unhealthy food advertisements, Reeve argues. The WHO explains that any exposure to unhealthy food marketing influences children, who, in turn, influence their parents to buy these meals for consumption, even when the advertisement is officially targeted for other audiences. The WHO suggests the regulation will be more effective if the main goal aims to reduce children’s overall exposure to unhealthy food marketing, not just reducing the marketing that targets children.

Reeve explains that to enforce the Australian food marketing industry’s voluntary self-regulation program effectively there must be better oversight over the industry as a whole. Reeve first suggests introducing an administrative committee with representatives from government agencies, as well as other external and internal stakeholders to balance private and public interests. This committee would be responsible for collecting and analyzing data about the nutritional quality of products marketed to children and the industry’s level of compliance. The committee would then track improvement from companies’ mandatory reporting requirements.

Reeve writes that this committee would implement an enforcement mechanism—such as sanctions—if companies were to breach their responsibilities. Sanctions provide a strong motivation for compliance through potential reputational and financial consequences for companies. Similarly, the committee would encourage compliance through a wide range of incentives.

If the committee finds that the self-regulation program does not achieve high levels of compliance, Reeve suggests moving to a co-regulatory system. A co-regulatory system would allow the government to get more involved in regulation by creating legislative infrastructure requiring all food industry companies to follow regulations and preapproved goals. The food marketing industry would still set its own standards, but the responsibility for monitoring and enforcing these standards would be transferred to a government agency, thereby putting greater pressure on companies to comply.

If the industry fails to make significant progress under the co-regulatory system, Reeve suggests that government adopt new statutory measures altogether. Reeve promotes a prohibition on unhealthy food marketing on television until late at night, restricting marketing on media platforms with large child audiences, and banning unhealthy food marketing in and around sites where large groups of children gather. Reeve even suggests prohibiting the use of animated characters and celebrities to promote unhealthy foods.

Once the government implements these statutory measures, a government agency would monitor and enforce the rules. In some cases, the government could even prosecute companies that “engaged in serious forms of noncompliance.” The agency would regularly analyze and write reports about the progress of reducing children’s exposure to unhealthy food marketing.

Reeve anticipates that this type of government intervention would be viewed as intrusive and would face industry resistance. The industry’s response might suggest that this type of intervention is not practical. But, Reeve believes the threat of this intrusive government intervention will motivate the industry to comply with the softer regulations that should be put in place first. Such a threat will also provide the government with greater bargaining power for implementing more effective voluntary and co-regulatory policies.

According to Reeve, the Australian food marketing industry has a real opportunity to upend the rate of childhood obesity, but only if the industry puts the public’s health interests before its own private interests.

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.

Self-regulation of junk food advertising to kids doesn’t work. Here’s why.

junk-food-ads-kids

Recently, Cancer Council NSW published a study finding that food industry self-regulation in Australia has not been effective in reducing children’s exposure to unhealthy food marketing. Australian children still see, on average, three advertisements for unhealthy foods and beverages during each hour of prime time television they watch. This figure remains unchanged despite the Australian food industry introducing two voluntary codes on food marketing to children in 2009.

My research, published recently in the Monash University Law Review, explains why.

I undertook an in-depth analysis of the terms and conditions of the two food industry codes on marketing to children. I also analyzed the processes of administration, monitoring, enforcement and review established by the self-regulatory scheme.

My analysis drew on the code documents themselves, monitoring reports from the food industry, existing independent research, and a sample of advertising complaint determinations from the Advertising Standards Board. I also considered the revisions made to the codes in 2014 (following an independent review of the scheme), and asked whether these revisions make the codes more likely to protect children from exposure to unhealthy food marketing.

My key finding is that the substantive terms and conditions of the codes contain a series of loopholes which leave food companies with a variety of techniques they can use to market unhealthy products to children. These loopholes include:

  • A weak definition of “media directed primarily to children” which excludes general audience programs that are popular with children
  • A weak definition of “advertising directed to children,” made weaker still by the Advertising Standards Board’s interpretive approach; and
  • The exclusion from the codes of key promotional techniques such as company-owned characters (e.g., Ronald McDonald), brand advertising, product line advertising, and product packaging and labelling.

The processes used to administer and enforce the codes also contain a series of flaws, undermining the codes’ efficacy, transparency and accountability. These include:

  • A lack of consultation with, or participation by, external stakeholders in the development of the codes, e.g., consumer or child representatives, government, or public health groups;
  • A lack of independent, systematic monitoring of the codes; and
  • The limited availability of enforcement mechanisms for non-compliance.

These loopholes and limitations help to explain why food industry self-regulation has not been effective in improving children’s food marketing environment. Further, the revisions to the codes made in 2014 appear to have done little to improve the self-regulatory scheme, and are unlikely to lead to lead to reductions in children’s exposure to unhealthy food marketing.

My article sets out a “responsive” or step-wise approach for strengthening regulation of food marketing to children, by closing off the loopholes in the substantive terms and conditions of the codes, and strengthening regulatory processes, including monitoring and enforcement. Most importantly, I argue, regulation of food marketing to children needs strong government leadership and an approach to protecting children from unhealthy food marketing that doesn’t just rely on voluntary food industry action. There are a range of regulatory options available, even if government is unwilling to introduce new statutory controls on food marketing to children.