Senate debates

Wednesday, 5 December 2018


Select Committee into the Obesity Epidemic in Australia; Report

6:19 pm

Photo of Richard Di NataleRichard Di Natale (Victoria, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I present the report of the Select Committee into the Obesity Epidemic in Australia, together with the Hansard report of proceedings and documents presented to the committee, and I move:

That the Senate take note of the report.

In Australia, rates of overweight and obesity have risen dramatically in recent decades in all age groups, with increases most marked among obese adults. We're facing a crisis. We may be the first generation that hands over a lower life expectancy to our kids than the one that we enjoyed.

In 2014-15, two-thirds of Australian adults were overweight or obese and 71 per cent of men were overweight or obese, compared to 56 per cent of women. We know that is a problem because of the link between obesity and poor health outcomes. We know that that link is well established, that people who are overweight and obese have a heightened risk of developing a high range of chronic diseases. They include cardiovascular diseases, like heart disease, stroke and peripheral vascular diseases, but also type 2 diabetes. The distribution of fat around the body is important. Where it's visceral fat and stored around the body's vital organs, you have an increased risk of heart disease and other metabolic disorders. So we know that it is a serious health risk. We know that being overweight or obese increases your risk of at least 13 different types of cancer, including breast cancer and colon cancer. This is a major health issue. We have an epidemic of chronic disease looming over the horizon and we have an urgent need to address this issue.

We know that this has changed over recent times. We know that people haven't suddenly started to make unhealthy choices. What we do know is that the environment around us has changed and that has led to the growing incidents of overweight and obesity. We heard from people like Belinda Smith from The Root Cause, who says that there is a frightening lack of understanding amongst many parents and children about the impacts of unhealthy foods on not just health but behaviour, concentration and academic results. We are now seeing a generation of kids who are going into adulthood with fatty liver disease, as well as some of the other diseases that I mentioned.

The inquiry had 150 submissions from a huge variety of key stakeholders. We had the major medical associations contribute to the report. I want to thank them. We had a number of other organisations involved in advocacy submit. We had industry representatives submit. We obviously had consumers and just groups of people who realise that this is an issue in schools and their local communities who made contributions through their submissions. We had four hearings between August and September. I want to thank all of the committee members for engaging in the report in a very constructive way. I see Senator Singh is here and so is Senator Storer, both of whom contributed to the report. We did, I think, in this committee engage in good faith and with a spirit of collaboration.

Our report made 22 recommendations. This is a very comprehensive report. I particularly want to thank the secretariat for the huge work they put into drafting what is a very comprehensive report. It's a huge body of work. What we have come up with is, I think, a holistic range of recommendations. I am very proud of the work that the committee has done. What we have identified is that Australia does not have an overarching strategy to tackle obesity. The committee heard compelling evidence around the need—and this was almost universal—for a national strategy to tackle obesity. We also heard that there is not one single thing that we need to do but that we need a range of strategies to address the issue of obesity.

We also heard about the language used to describe this problem. 'Obesity' is a very stigmatising word, and one of the recommendations was to be aware of the stigma associated with the use of 'obesity'. It is a term that is used within the medical and scientific community without an obvious alternative, so we will continue to use that word, but in the context of clinical practice there may be other ways of being able to address this. So stigma and discrimination is certainly something that came up throughout the inquiry.

We heard that we have a problem with food labelling and that we need simple and consistent front-of-pack labelling to enable consumers to make healthier food choices. We heard about some of the limitations of the health star-rating system and some of the loopholes that exist. The committee's addressed a number of those issues and made recommendations about how we can improve the way the health star-rating system works. Of course, we heard that that needs to be mandatory—that, rather than having the industry decide which products they want to use it on, often as a marketing exercise, we need to have a comprehensive food-labelling system that is mandatory.

We heard about the impact of advertising of junk foods. This was something that came up time and time again. We heard that the junk food industry does often direct its advertising budget at young children. The report—I must say that that's the chair's report—recommends introducing restrictions on discretionary food and drink advertising on free-to-air TV up until 9 pm. I'll come to the additional and dissenting comments from some of the other senators. Certainly, the chair's report makes it very clear that we need to act when it comes to advertising restrictions, and we need to do that quickly. We learnt that we need to do more when it comes to public education; that, at the moment, there hasn't been investment in public education campaigns. We need more government leadership in this area.

One of the other things that was considered was a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages. This is something that has been recommended by all major health groups, including the World Health Organization. We learnt that many other jurisdictions have implemented them; 30 countries and a whole range of other subnational jurisdictions around the world are introducing sugar-sweetened beverages taxes. One of the things we learnt was that this has an impact not just in terms of driving consumption choices but, indeed, at the level of the manufacturers. When you introduce a tax like this, what we are seeing is some of the manufacturers respond by reducing the amount of sugar in their drinks so that they pay a lower tax on the beverages that are sold. This isn't something that just affects consumption; it also affects production. What we are seeing are healthier products being made available.

We also learnt about the need for activity. We heard about programs like Walking School Bus, and so on. What we need to do is encourage physical activity wherever possible. We heard that the most successful programs were those community based multistrategy interventions—a whole-of-government approach. In different jurisdictions you have a range of these things being implemented together: restrictions on advertising; increasing physical activity; addressing things within schools; healthy lunch programs; getting rid of vending machines; and getting rid of fizzy drinks from cafeterias. There are a whole range of strategies directed at a community level to help drive down obesity.

One of the things that I am encouraged by is, while there wasn't a consensus around the chair's report—it's true to say that the Liberal Party and the One Nation representatives didn't sign off on many of the more significant recommendations—I think there is an agreement that we do need a strategy. Issues around advertising, sugar-sweetened beverages taxes and mandatory food labelling were things that were rejected by the Liberal Party. The Labor Party did come to accept many of the recommendations. Unfortunately, Labor haven't gone as far as I'd like—indeed, when it comes to advertising, they haven't accepted the recommendation for restrictions on advertising up until 9 pm—but what they have at least done is accepted the need for a review. I am encouraged that, after the election of a Shorten Labor government, which I suspect is something that is a few months away, we will see a review into junk food advertising and, hopefully, we will see some action. Again, they haven't ruled out the sugar-sweetened beverage tax outright. They have indicated they are interested in watching the evidence as it unfolds. I hope we might see some movement from the Labor Party on that front.

In closing, we have got a comprehensive blueprint here through the establishment of a national strategy and, indeed, a national task force. One of the recommendations was, because of the different jurisdictions involved, we need to bring together a group of people, cross-jurisdictional experts, to establish a national task force to do all of these things that we know work: better labelling—and make it mandatory—to close the loopholes; restrictions on junk food advertising, particularly on free-to-air TV up until 9 pm so kids aren't being bombarded with this junk; sugar-sweetened beverages taxes; and more physical activity. Most importantly, we know it is not just one thing that's going to help us address it. We need community-led, multistrategy interventions if we are going to see the sort of change that we need to see to address what is an enormous problem here in Australia.

6:29 pm

Photo of Lisa SinghLisa Singh (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Labor welcomes today's tabling of the report of the Senate Select Committee into the Obesity Epidemic in Australia. As the committee's deputy chair, I'd like to express my gratitude to all of those individuals and organisations from across Australia who made submissions to this inquiry—some 153 submissions—and also to those who appeared at public hearings.

As the chair, Senator Di Natale, has outlined, obesity in Australia is a really serious problem. That is why I have 'enjoyed' this in the sense of being informed about what we can do at a policy level to tackle what has been termed an epidemic because the rates of obesity continue to rise. We have worked very constructively through this Senate select committee to come up with what I believe is a really constructive, full and informative report that has a number of key recommendations which I think will be of huge benefit to the Australian population going forward if they are implemented.

The rates of obesity are that 28 per cent of the population aged 15 and over are obese, making us the fifth highest among the OECD countries. And Australia's rate of childhood obesity is increasing rapidly. Our 2014-15 data showed that 63 per cent of Australian adults were overweight or obese, with 71 per cent of those men and 56 per cent women. There are currently over one million children in Australia who are overweight or obese, while 20 per cent of children aged two to four and 27 per cent of children and adolescents aged five to 17 are overweight or obese. I think those statistics are alarming because we know that the short-term health impacts for children and adolescents include chronic conditions such as breathing difficulties, fractures, hypertension, insulin resistance and early markers of cardiovascular disease. That's why government really needs to act to address this issue. The most significant long-term health impacts of childhood obesity that manifest into adulthood are cardiovascular disease, diabetes, musculoskeletal disorders and certain types of cancer.

We had a wide range of stakeholders make submissions to this committee's inquiry and they urged government to target health interventions and to hold broad education campaigns. And, as the chair has referred to, they raised the need for a national obesity task force, which is one of the key recommendations in this report. I think, indeed, many of us in this place were alarmed to learn that there was no body within government looking at addressing obesity. So as a start, I think that is something government could get on with and do straightaway.

Some of the key submitters who we heard from during this inquiry's hearings included the Centre for Research Excellence in the Early Prevention of Obesity in Childhood; The Children's Hospital at Westmead in Sydney; Diabetes Australia; Choice; The Root Cause; the Global Obesity Centre; Parent's Voice; the Health Star Rating Advisory Committee; the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare; the Public Health Association of Australia; the National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation; the Australian Local Government Association; and, of course, the Department of Health. We listened to some passionate individuals, and one I want to highlight particularly is Belinda Smith, from a small organisation called The Root Cause. She shared with us about the foods that were in children's lunch boxes every day. I think that's a very good place to start.

Belinda and The Root Cause believe that with a focused effort at the grassroots level on school food—around what is in children's lunch boxes—it is possible to prevent and curb childhood obesity, plus improve on the sorts of academic results we have had thus far. She told me about an Australian tour that The Root Cause went on to transform children's health called the Real Food Lunchbox Project. Out of that project, she learnt that children just want to fit in. In saying that, children want to eat whatever their friends are eating. If their friends are eating packets, they eat packets. But if they are all eating real food—fruit and vegetables—then even the kids whose parents say they are fussy eaters will eat the fruit and vegetables.

Having listened to Belinda and hearing about her experience, which was in schools right across the country, where she saw pretty much the same thing happening, I think we can really learn from addressing this at the school level and at the educational campaign level and learn from looking at what jurisdictions overseas have done on that front. France and the UK are two easy examples. In France they actually have a cooked lunch within the school. I think the UK has a similar model to some degree.

When kids are turning up with sugary drinks, sugary foods, packaged foods or processed foods in their lunchbox it does not set them up well for the rest of their lives. I know it's quick and easy, but long-term it is doing them damage. We need to support families and schools to address this so that kids eat well, because not only is there a benefit to their physical health; there is a massive benefit to their mental health and to their learning capacity. That is something that we heard through evidence provided by organisations such as The Root Cause. There are so many individuals and organisations that are so passionate about this issue because they're at the coalface and are seeing what is going on with our kids.

The rise of obesity in our kids is really, really worrying. That's why we've proposed these recommendations, as Senator Di Natale went to: a national obesity strategy; looking at food labelling and how we can improve food labelling; looking at food reformulation; looking at advertising; looking at education campaigns; looking at healthcare interventions; at community based multistrategy interventions. This is a holistic issue. Yes, government can play a role, but it is also about the broader community, and we need to support the broader community in playing the role that it can play.

Labor is very pleased to support the majority of the report's recommendations, such as the establishment of a task force; an obesity strategy; and labelling that's fit for purpose, which obviously represents the nutritional value of foods and beverages. However, while we agree with the majority of the recommendations, we have provided a short dissenting report on the implementation of the sugar-sweetened beverage tax, and on restrictions and the mandatory health-star rating on food and drink advertising. But, as Senator Di Natale, the chair, said, this is something where Labor accepts the logic. We accept the logic that a sugar tax is likely to reduce consumption and accelerate the reformulation effort, but we need to recognise, as we heard throughout this inquiry, that that is only one option, amongst many, to address overweight and obesity. We need to recognise it simply would not be effective without those other measures. I think in other jurisdictions like the UK and Mexico the evidence around a sugar-sweetened beverage tax is still emerging, particularly in relation to obesity rates, but it is something that we still need to monitor closely, and we will do that. Similarly, with the changing nature of children's viewing of advertising—children don't just sit down in front of the TV anymore; they're using iPads, iPhones, computers, you name it—we need to look at other ways in which advertising is filtering through. That's why we've committed to having a review in relation to the advertising approach.

We take this incredibly seriously. Labor really want to see action to address obesity, particularly childhood obesity, in our country. We need to support the next generation so that they can be healthy young adults.

Question agreed to.