Remember when road accidents were a leading killer in Australia?
Remember when tobacco and smoking advertisements were commonplace before being considered taboo, then effectively sentenced as an accessory to murder?
In both instances, the government stepped in and did its part in reducing fatalities caused by these common killers.
It slowly but steadily removed smoking ads, raised taxes on tobacco and created awareness campaigns highlighting the dangers of smoking and incentives to quit. It still funds quit campaigns.
Now it is being called upon to act against what may be the leading culprits causing Australia’s growing obesity epidemic.
Australian supermarkets are again in the gun for unethical promotion of unhealthy foods and drinks over much healthier options.
Not so long ago, the Inside our supermarkets: Assessment of the healthiness of Australian supermarkets report found that junk foods get more shelf space and bigger discounts more frequently than healthier options. It also found that soft drinks, chips, chocolate and lollies get around 80 per cent of end-of-aisle displays.
Read more: Supermarkets the devil in disguise?
The newly released Food Environment Dashboard from Deakin University’s Global Obesity Centre backs these earlier findings. And none of the major players are free from sin, with Woolworths, Coles, Aldi and IGA all ‘red-flagged’ for driving high obesity rates in Australia.
The dashboard assesses healthiness of the foods available at supermarkets, the way they are marketed, and the price and affordability of all diet types.
Most Australian supermarkets have been slammed for incessant price specials and markdowns on unhealthy items such as chocolates, chips and sugary drinks, and how they promote them in stores.
“At Australian supermarkets, it is almost impossible to pay for groceries without being exposed to unhealthy food and drinks,” said project leader Associate Professor Gary Sacks.
“Unhealthy products are ‘on special’ almost twice as often as healthy foods, and the discounts on unhealthy foods are much larger than the discounts on healthier foods.”
“Unhealthy diets are leading contributors to poor health in Australia. Our diets are so bad because wherever we go, unhealthy food is pushed at us.”
Australia’s obesity crisis has reached epidemic proportions, says the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW), which claims two in three (67 per cent) of adults are overweight or obese in 2017-18 – as are one in four (25 per cent) children and adolescents aged two to 17.
Read more: Obesity is the new normal
And yet supermarkets and food brands regularly bomb Aussie kids with unhealthy food ads on television, social media and online.
The Food Dashboard researchers found that, on average, children see 10 junk food ads each hour they’re on a mobile device and, when watching TV, see unhealthy food ads more than twice as often as healthy foods ads.
Unhealthy food marketing is also becoming increasingly prevalent on school routes, public transport, and where they play and watch sport, said the researchers.
These ads target the ‘reward centres’ of young brains and lead to increased consumption of fast food.
The report found that food environments in disadvantaged areas are also less healthy than those in advantaged areas.
People living in lower socioeconomic areas are exposed to more unhealthy food promotions. One study suggests low socioeconomic areas had a significantly higher ratio of unhealthy food ads to healthy ads within 500m of schools, compared to high socioeconomic areas.
It costs more to eat healthily in these same areas. In some cases, a healthy diet costs more than 30 per cent of a household’s income, making it simply unaffordable for low-income earners and people living in rural or remote areas.
Researchers want the government to set standards for the processed food industry to stop driving unhealthy diets.
“These red flags show an urgent need for governments to introduce higher standards for how the food industry markets and sells its unhealthy food and drink products,” said Obesity Policy Coalition executive Jane Martin.
While the Food Dashboard exposed supermarkets’ bad behaviour, it also found some silver linings, with major supermarkets leading the way in displaying the Health Star Rating on home-brand product labels, helping some shoppers make more informed food choices.
However, it seems Australians need more help to improve their diets and Dr Martin says it’s time the government steps in to “put Australians’ health above food industry profits and enhance the health and wellbeing of millions of Australians”.
“Unhealthy diets and obesity are leading contributors to poor health in Australia. For that reason, it’s critical to closely monitor the key drivers of our unhealthy diets,” write Assoc. Prof. Sacks and Deakin University PhD student Sally Schultz in The Conversation.
“We’re pretty good at monitoring our exposure to other key health risks and taking public health action accordingly.
“Now we need the same level of attention paid to our food environments, where there are still some key gaps in our knowledge.
“Improvements can be made by introducing globally recommended policies, such as taxes on sugary drinks and higher standards for how the food industry markets its unhealthy food and drink products.
“These actions can help ensure all Australians have access to food environments that support healthy diets.”
Read more: Renewed push for sugar tax
The George Institute food policy expert Alexandra Jones agrees, adding that the federal government needs to step in to restrict junk food marketing, tax unhealthy foods and address labelling shortfalls.
“If we want companies to make healthier products, I think we need to make junk food less attractive to consumers and less profitable,” said Dr Jones.
“We shouldn’t be leaving it in the hands of food companies to address the obesity epidemic.
“We need to make a policy environment that makes junk food less profitable.”
Do you think it should be up to the government to address unhealthy food marketing and the poor diets of many Australians? What do you think of these findings? Why not share your thoughts in the comments section below?
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