Australia’s health scorecard finds unhealthy weight is closing the gap on tobacco, as the nation’s second highest risk factor for the preventable disease burden.
A new report, Australia’s Health 2022, released by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare shows that 8.4% of the total disease burden in Australia is due to excess weight, with diet contributing 5.4%. Tobacco contributes to 8.6% of the total disease burden and has been declining since 2003.
Jane Martin, Executive Manager, Obesity Policy Coalition (OPC), said “As we emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s time we turned to address excess weight as a significant public health issue, which impacts the lives of 12.5 million Australians.
“More than two thirds of Australian adults and a quarter of children are above a healthy weight, with higher rates in Aboriginal and rural communities. This put millions at risk of serious chronic diseases including heart disease, some cancers and type 2 diabetes as our population ages.
“People above a healthy weight are also at higher risk of suffering worse COVID-19 outcomes. With ongoing COVID-19 fears, public policy measures are urgently needed to tackle the complex socio-economic and environmental drivers to improve health and reduce the growing burden of obesity.”
To build a resilient, healthier nation, OPC is calling on governments to prioritise:
1. Protecting children from unhealthy food marketing
2. Informing consumers about added sugars in packaged foods
3. Improving the composition, labelling and promotion of commercial baby and toddler foods and,
4. Placing a levy on manufacturers of sugary drinks as an incentive to reduce sugar content.
“We have common-sense solutions that should be implemented as a priority to improve Australia’s food environments and put people’s health, and that of their children, above the profits of the processed food industry,” Ms Martin said.
Dr Sandro Demaio, Chief Executive, VicHealth, joined the call to support healthier environments for a healthier future.
“Our children should be free to learn, play and grow in a society that supports their health and wellbeing. Yet, currently more than a third of energy from kids’ diets comes from unhealthy processed foods,” Dr Demaio said.
“To give children the best chance of growing into healthy adults, we need to protect our kids from being targeted by the processed food industry with unhealthy food marketing that influences what they eat, what they want to eat and what they ask for.”
Ms Martin added, “This marketing is wallpaper in their lives, following them wherever they go on digital platforms, popular TV programs and in sport.”
Ms Martin warned that harmful added sugars in processed foods and drinks were adding to unhealthy weight and poor diet concerns around the country. Currently, added sugar labelling is under consideration by the food regulator, Food Standards Australia New Zealand, with consultation outcomes expected mid-2023.
“Australians have a right to know if their food or drink contains added sugars that are harmful to health. Added sugar labelling is particularly important in packaged foods for babies and toddlers, as they often contain high levels of added sugars from fruit pastes or concentrates.
“We know there is support for action on added sugar as a recent RCH National Child Health Poll found 9 in 10 parents agree there should be laws to limit harmful sugars in baby and toddler foods.”
“To protect our youngest Australians, we need clear, honest labelling of these products and limits on how much sugar can be added to baby and toddler foods.”
Ms Martin also highlighted sugary drinks as the largest contributor of added sugar in our diets, with Australians consuming an estimated 2.4 billion litres every year.
“A health levy of 20 per cent on sugary drink manufacturers would incentivise them to reformate products and lower sugar content to avoid paying the levy.
“Estimates suggest that a health levy could save more than 1,600 Australian lives and raise more than $400 million per year that could be channelled into obesity prevention.i This could help alleviate pressures on the public health care system, as it struggles to recover from the COVID-19 crisis.
“The evidence is clear,” Ms Martin said, “with overweight and obesity on track to overtake tobacco as the leading modifiable health burden in Australia, we urge governments to take action now to protect the health of all Australians.”