Our say | Every step helps in the fight against obesity

THE campaign to have a sugar tax imposed on sugary drinks as one step towards beating Australia’s obesity crisis has won a significant new ally this week.

In a submission to a Senate inquiry into Australia’s obesity epidemic, the National Rural Health Alliance not only advocated the sugary drinks tax but also called for greater restrictions on marketing unhealthy food to children, including a ban on free to air TV advertising until after 9.30pm.

Crucially, the alliance is a heavy hitter in national health circles.

It represents 35 national organisations working across the rural and remote health sector including Australian icons such as the Royal Flying Doctor Service, Country Women’s Association of Australia, National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation (NACCHO) and RACGP Rural.

So when it enters a public policy debate, it does so with the benefit of real world experience of what health professionals are encountering, particularly in the bush. But that does not make its recommendations any less contentious as part of a debate that has been pitched as “nanny state” versus “freedom of choice”.

The problem is, too many families have shown they are too ready to make poor choices and there is both an individual and national cost to that.

Australia today is showing a disturbing trend where obesity rates have doubled in young children aged two to five over the last 20 years. When we consider that 63 per cent of adults and 27 per cent of children are overweight or obese, the lack of a national strategy to address obesity is all the more disappointing.

The Senate inquiry will no doubt make its recommendations towards such a strategy but it is going to take concrete measures rather than simple mission statements to make a difference.

A sugar tax is by no means a magic bullet, but it would be both of those things.

In one piece of legislation the government could make an important statement on our intention to fight the obesity crisis and also enforce a change of buying behaviour – in some, at least.

Our experience with cigarettes has shown that no matter the price there will always be a market, but that market has dwindled in recent years.

Sugar might be this country’s next nicotine. It will be a long fight to beat obesity, but every small step will help.