Australia ‘needs national obesity plan and soft drinks tax should fund it’: Health summit chief

By Gary Scattergood

- Last updated on GMT

The current lack of a coordinated national approach is not acceptable, said Tally. ©iStock
The current lack of a coordinated national approach is not acceptable, said Tally. ©iStock

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The lack of a coordinated national approach to the Australian obesity epidemic is “unacceptable”, according to the Chair of the Council of Presidents of Medical Colleges, who is calling for more clinical trials to assess solutions and a soft drinks tax to boost public health. 

Laureate Professor Nick Talley chaired the recent National Health Summit on Obesity, which established a six-point plan of action to tackle the problem, with funding proposed to come via a sugar-sweetened beverage tax.

“It is time now that Australian health care professionals, organisations training future health care professionals, and government at all levels begin looking at what we can do together; the six-point plan is a start,”​ wrote Professor Talley wrote in the Medical Journal of Australia.

"It is alarming how much unhealthy body weight has expanded since the 1970s, when obesity was uncommon; over one in four Australian children are now overweight or obese, as are over two-thirds of all adults.

"The most controversial recommendation is the consideration of a sugar tax, but accumulating evidence supports its public health benefit.

“The current lack of a coordinated national approach is not acceptable," ​he added.

The six-point plan calls for:

- Recognition of obesity as a chronic disease with multiple causes: remove stigma, focus on prevention (especially in children) and maximise access to optimal disease management.

- Education and upskilling: build health professional capability in the prevention and management of obesity by upskilling through education and training, provide disease management toolboxes, and fund clinical research to identify new evidence-based prevention and treatment strategies.

- Health professionals leading by example: encourage health professionals to lead by example with initiatives across universities, hospitals and health services, including reducing access to sugar-sweetened beverages and processed foods on site, and promoting a greater variety of fresh foods and water as healthier choices for staff, students and visitors.

- Pre-conception planning: focus on prevention before and early after birth, provide obesity prevention and care for all women as part of routine perinatal care (and women and men before conception), and provide support services after birth via a nationally funded strategy.

- National obesity prevention strategy: develop and adopt a new comprehensive evidence-based strategy including a focus on diet, exercise and healthy cities (bringing health expertise to the table to maximise the benefits of new urban planning). 

- Stronger voluntary regulation and new legislation: incentivise voluntary food reformulation and support food ratings, reduce unhealthy food marketing to children, reduce the consumption of unhealthy high sugar beverages and foods by implementing a sugar-sweetened beverage tax, and use the funding to support the entire plan.

The Council of Presidents of Medical Colleges of Australia incorporates Australia's 15 specialist medical colleges. They developed the plan following a summit last November to deal with the obesity crisis.

According to the Australian Bureau of statistics, inn 2014-15, 63.4% of Australian adults were overweight or obese (11.2m people).

This is similar to the prevalence of overweight and obesity in 2011-12 (62.8%) and an increase since 1995 (56.3%).

Around one in four (27.4%) children aged 5-17 years were overweight or obese. In   2011-12 it was 25.7%.

Professor Talley. who is also the editor-in-chief of the Medical Journal of Australia, ​wrote: "Environment is key to the development of obesity, as genes cannot account for the rapidly changing epidemiology. Moreover, there is evidence that the food industry has been a major contributor to obesity globally.

"Changes in diet are established to alter the intestinal microbiome and may lead to altered nutrient absorption as well as low-grade inflammation with immune activation potentially promoting fat accumulation, perhaps via epigenetic changes, which may in part explain why maternal obesity is a risk factor.

"Research in Australia is more limited than it arguably should be, including in terms of active clinical trials," ​he added.

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