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“Time for significant action”: Australia launches open consultation for national obesity strategy

With two-thirds of the Australian population predicted to be overweight or obese by 2030, a ten-year-long national obesity strategy is set to be launched by the Australian and state and territory governments through the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) Health Council. The government is now calling on stakeholders, organizations and community members to participate in an open consultation to help shape the strategy. However, experts have flagged that previous attempts to address the obesity crisis have failed and that significant investment will be key to success.

“Obesity needs to be a national priority, so the development of a national obesity strategy is a step in the right direction. However, this is not the first strategy and previous attempts have either not been implemented or sustained successfully. Investing in implementation of the strategy will be critical,” Tiffany Petre, Director of the Collective for Action on Obesity, tells.

It is, therefore, vital that the current strategy has a clear implementation strategy, which is underpinned by appropriate resourcing, governance, reporting and accountability, adds Stephen Simpson, Executive Director of Obesity Australia and Academic Director of Charles Perkins Centre at the University of Sydney.

The national obesity strategy is described as a way to identify actions for the government to lead at local, regional and national levels. The consultation paper notes that this will require strong partnerships across many sectors including transport, employment, health, social services, education, infrastructure, agriculture, retail, manufacturing, trade and finance.

Primary and secondary prevention will be the key focus, with making healthy options the easiest option an important goal. Other preventative actions will include addressing environmental and social factors and supporting individuals, families and communities.

Government leading the way, using data better, building the workplace and investing in delivery are highlighted as four enablers to help ensure that action is effective.

Additionally, the five proposed principles to guide the development and implementation of a strategy are people-first, equity, collective and sustained action, evidence-based, and sustainable development. These will help guide four priority areas:

1. Supporting children and families
This priority area revolves around starting early to support healthy weight throughout life and could include:

  • Support for parents-to-be and new parents.
  • Enabling parents to encourage lifelong healthy habits for children and young people.
  • Enabling places where children play and learn to promote healthy behaviors.

2. Mobilizing people and communities
This area proposes using knowledge, strengths and community connections to enable healthy weights and could include:

  • Building people’s knowledge and skills to enable healthy habits and social norms.
  • Support for local communities, groups and organizations to lead initiatives that respond to local needs.
  • Weight management interventions for those at risk of becoming overweight.
  • Support for health and social services to prioritize the prevention of obesity-related chronic disease.
  • Healthy behaviors promoted in places where people learn, work and receive healthcare.

3. Enabling active living
Places, spaces and facilities can empower, motivate and inspire individuals and communities to be active and could include:

  • Investing in connected active places and spaces in urban, regional and rural areas.
  • Motivating and inspiring participation in regular physical activity by people of all ages and abilities.

4. Building a healthier and more resilient food system
The final area notes that a resilient food system means having the capacity to produce enough healthy and culturally appropriate food to meet people’s needs. This could include:

  • Ensuring food systems favor the production, processing and manufacturing of healthy and sustainable products.
  • Increasing the availability of healthier, more sustainable food and drinks in the places we live and work.
  • Making processed food and drinks healthier and more sustainable.
  • Ensuring availability and affordability of good quality, culturally appropriate, healthy food and drinks in communities that are currently worse off.
  • Reducing exposure to unhealthy food and drinks marketing and promotion.
  • Increasing the availability and accessibility of information to help people choose healthier options at the time of purchasing food or drinks.
  • Looking at ways of changing the price of food and drinks to shift consumer purchases toward healthier options.

Potential challenges
Over the past ten years, the number of people living with obesity has more than doubled, from 2.7 million in 2007-2008 to 5.8 million people today, according to Simpson. Although obesity affects all sections of society, equity is a major issue. Rates are higher in communities with relative socio-economic disadvantage, lower levels of educational attainment, regional and remote areas, as well as among Indigenous Australians. “Now is the time to do something significant about an issue that affects everyone, one way or another. Action by government is essential but will not be sufficient alone. Obesity needs to be a national priority, shared across all sectors of society. There is an important role for social purpose organizations and businesses, most notably the food industries. Government policies and programs are essential to provide the leadership and appropriate frameworks for action and to enable and support action by other sectors,” explains Simpson.

He continues that an obesogenic environment has been created, making it increasingly difficult for people to lead healthy lives. This environment provides readily available high-energy food, low exercise demands and numerous other features that promote weight gain. “The food industry and government have important roles to play in creating healthier environments for Australian communities, but we all share responsibility for action on obesity,” Simpson concludes.

Around the world, countries are starting to recognize the need for urgent change regarding obesity. Last month, the outgoing Chief Medical Officer for England published a report calling on the UK government to take “bold action” to slash children’s obesity rates, which has “cruel and avoidable” health impacts.

This came as Public Health England revealed that the food industry saw an average sugar reduction of just 2.9 percent between 2015 and 2018, making it unlikely that the voluntary target of a 20 percent reduction by 2020 will be met.

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