Government won’t pay the price of prevention

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IT’S easy to parrot “prevention is better than cure”. The WA government recently committed to spending 5 per cent of its health budget on prevention.

Michael Moore.

Why not? There is a different story for the Federal government in stark contrast to the majority of OECD countries that spend more than 5 per cent. Spending on prevention federally has steadily declined over the last 10 years down to less than 2 per cent.

Prevention is both a health and an economic issue.

Obesity has rapidly become the biggest threat to health in Australia as smoking rates decline and unhealthy diets take their toll. Injury prevention, misuse of alcohol and immunisation rates are other key prevention issues.

Keep in mind that the higher the proportion of unhealthy people in the community, the lower the productivity and the higher the long-term health bills borne by taxpayers.

Outcomes on prevention spending are usually a decade away. This was the case with smoking. Governments took a largely non-partisan approach to restrictions, regulation and campaigns on tobacco. However, there was a time delay before tobacco-related cancer, heart disease and other conditions reduced. The same may be expected with regard to issues such as healthy diet. Recent studies published in the “British Medical Journal” demonstrate a direct link between ultra-processed food, weight gain and consequential disease and death.

Some sections of industry, notably the junk-food lobby, would have us believe that the real issue is lack of physical activity. So much time is spent sitting in front of screens.

The best lies always have some truth in them. Physical activity is incredibly important in good health. However, poor health is much, much more diet related for the vast majority of people who are overweight or obese.

There have been some non-partisan approaches to diet. The Health Star Rating System, for example, was introduced by Labor’s Catherine King and supported by successive coalition governments. Although there are some flaws that are being considered by a current review, this front-of-pack labelling system rates in many ways amongst the best in the world. Ideally, the system would use “added sugar” in the algorithm and be colour coded like the French “Nutri-score”.

A recent paper published in the “Australian New Zealand Journal of Public Health” (ANZJPH), by Alexandra Jones from the George Institute for Global Health, found Australia’s Health Star Ratings are trusted by shoppers. However, the research

illustrates the system appears on less than a third of eligible packaged foods.

A radical increase in their uptake is needed if the system is to be successful. Consistent with this research, returning Health Minister Greg Hunt should work towards making the system mandatory.

In another paper published in the journal, I was lead author providing an insight into how the Health Star Rating system was developed. It includes the manner in which public health professionals and consumer advocates negotiated with businesses. The paper identifies the steps taken to make the system as successful as possible and the compromises that were reached.

Regulation has an important place. Marketing of junk food to children, which is simply out of control, ought to be reined in. A tax on sugary soft drinks should be adopted. There is an appropriate place for spending on vigorous media campaigns warning adults and their children of the dangers of over-indulgence in ultra-processed foods and the importance of whole foods. Warning labels on junk food, as used in South America, could be adopted if the Health Stars do not deliver on their promise.

In October, ACT Health Minister, Meegan Fitzharris identified that the ACT had a smoking rate of less than 10 per cent, down from more than 30 per cent in the 1970s. Taking a multifaceted approach has been the key to success. Food policy cannot slavishly follow techniques to reduce smoking. However, there are plenty of lessons that can and should be used. A healthy nation is a productive nation. The people’s health should be a priority for the incoming government.

Michael Moore is a former member of the ACT Legislative Assembly and an independent minister for health. He was on the committee that developed the Health Star Rating system and is a Distinguished Fellow with the George Institute. 

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Michael Moore
Michael Moore is a former member of the ACT Legislative Assembly and an independent minister for health in the Carnell government. He has been a political columnist with "CityNews" since 2006.

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