Australian and New Zealand ministers responsible for food regulation last week bowed to lobbying from processed food manufacturers and agreed to permit them to market products with general level health claims without requiring pre-market or independent verification.
General level health claims are those that relate a food or an ingredient with a health benefit, such as “product X helps promote the strength of the immune system”.
The ministers’ decision came just over a week after the Australia Institute for Health and Welfare released its Australia’s food and nutrition 2012 report, showing approximately one in four Australian children and nearly two-thirds of adults are overweight or obese. Diet-related diseases including obesity cost the health system over A$16bn annually.
Imagine this scene – a personal trainer barking at his flabby pen-pushing charges to push themselves through the pain barrier and climb those steps because “the human body wasn’t designed to sit at a computer all day”. It’s easy to imagine because of the common perception that the root cause of the current obesity epidemic is a radical shift in human behaviour – from the hunter-gatherer ways of our ancient ancestors to our current sedentary lifestyles with diets high in energy-dense and highly-processed foods.
It’s fair to say that homelessness is at crisis point in Australia. According to the 2006 census, almost 105,000 Australians were homeless on any given night.
And the problem clearly hasn’t disappeared over the past six years, with more than 91,000 Australians seeking assistance from specialist homeless services in the three months to September 2011. One in five of those people were aged under ten.
When it comes to branding and advertising, much of what we are exposed to creates only marginal difference. But even small differences can tip the balance toward a particular choice, and plain packaging of tobacco products will make this kind of difference.
This is because small differences build up into larger differences, and in marketing, the game is all about increments rather than dramatic changes in behaviour.
So, if we are serious about reducing the number of smokers in our population, the removal of branding, logos and promotion on the packages of tobacco products is a small step in the right direction.
Something terrible happened.
When I studied health in the post-revolutionary but pre-reunification early 1980s I looked up to the authors of the classic texts in health critique. Vicente Navarro. Howard Waitzkin. Ivan Illich. David Mechanic. Perhaps even Ilona Kickbusch. But certainly the Boston Women's Health Book Collective.
It seemed that in the nearly three decades since those inspiring days things started to balance out. Health, not disease, became the centre of the discourse. What was advocated as a fringe perspective (the 'social model of health' and even more radically, 'salutogenesis') became part of the global mainstream. We moved on.
Last week our reference librarian sent me an announcement that they were presented (freebie!) with an e-book. 'Health' was its title. Nice, I thought. Our librarian added:
The line attributed by Mark Twain to British PM Benjamin Disraeli that there are ‘lies, damned lies and statistics’ might be held to be true when assessing the value of indicators. Indicators, after all, only indicate, so there is scope for debate about the meaning of the UNDP’s Human Development Index, identified by Robert Johnson in Crikey.com yesterday and by me last Friday.
But as well as damned lies and statistics there are also category errors – analysing metaphorical tangerines when one is supposed to be looking at oranges. They are similar, but not quite the same and confusing one for the other can lead to inaccuracies.
For every Australian tired of bad news – disasters, political disputes and public people behaving badly – here is some good news. While nobody was noticing, late last year Australia pipped Norway to achieve the highest standard of living in the world.
On New Years day, as the Victorian and Northern Territory governments followed NSW, WA and the ACT by implementing laws preventing cigarettes from being put on display to the public, the Australian Medical Association called for a $25 million TV and newspaper advertising campaign showing “damaged vital organs or people drinking liquefied body fat” to shock Australians into giving up junk food and sugary soft drinks. The good doctors based their call upon a belief that the fear-based advertising campaigns used by the TAC (in Victoria) and Quit have been effective in changing behaviour around driving and smoking.
An advertisement created by The Precinct studio highlights the debate about whether shock ads actually change behaviour. The viral execution features a mother preparing to inject her son with heroin before the scene changes to show him eating a hamburger.
The caption reads: ''You wouldn't inject your children with junk so why are you feeding it to them?''
World Breastfeeding Week was unfortunately marked this year by a focus on an off-the-cuff remark by Brazilian-American supermodel Gisele Bündchen that there should be a worldwide law forcing mothers to breastfeed their babies for six months.
As ridiculous as the remark may seem, the supermodel’s desire to see other mothers breastfeed for up to six months in fact aligns with the strong scientific evidence of the health and other benefits breastfeeding brings for both mother and baby.