By Richard Trembath
I cannot advise all more spiritual natures too seriously to abstain from alcohol absolutely. Water suffices . . . No eating between meals, no coffee . . . Tea beneficial only in the morning.
Friedrich Nietzsche, Ecce Homo (1888), from the section called ‘Why I Am So Clever’.
In this article I shall discuss several issues associated with junk food and how governments have dealt over the previous two decades with the detrimental consequences of Australia’s heavy consumption of these products. I do not examine the social and financial consequences of diseases, such as type 2 diabetes or cardio-vascular issues, which are frequently the product of poor food health. My overall aim is to show how community and political efforts can be thwarted by fear of electoral backlash, sensitivity to government intervention, and the formidable power of the food and beverage giants. Let there be no doubt that junk food is a major component of the Australian diet as it is in much of the world. (It is over twenty years since the World Health Organisation coined the term ‘globesity’). [i] This has been the case for some time as a report from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development in 2010 indicated. In that year our nation ‘had the most rapidly growing obesity rate among developed nations’. The report ‘found obesity rates in Australia had been increasing faster than any other advanced nation for the past 20 years.’[ii]
Over a decade later, the situation had not changed and might even have worsened.
Low nutrient, high kilojoule food continues to be the top choice for Australians, with new research from CSIRO, Australia’s national science agency, showing that nearly four out of five people are overindulging in junk foods every day . . . The results also uncovered our top weaknesses, with alcohol taking out the top spot (21% of total discretionary food intake), followed by cakes and biscuits (19%), sugar sweetened beverages (12%) and savoury pies and pasties (9%).[iii]
In passing, I should note that Nietzsche’s dietary advice did the philosopher no good. He fell into permanent insanity and physical debility a few weeks after writing the lines I have cited above.
We now go back almost two decades to Federal Parliament in 2004 and examine a brief spat over the idea of banning junk food advertising on so-called children’s television time. Mark Latham, then Leader of the Federal Opposition, asked the then Prime Minister, John Howard, the following question:
Is the Prime Minister aware that the Australian Medical Association, the Royal Australasian College of Physicians, the Public Health Association of Australia and great athletes like Robert de Castella all support a ban on junk food advertising on children’s television? In the words of Deek, anything that reduces the marketing is a good thing. Why then in question time yesterday did the Prime Minister say he was opposed to the ban because of a loss of revenue to the corporate sector?
And the Prime Minister replied:
My position is very simple: if something is legal to sell, in the absence of an overwhelming case to the opposite, we have a right in this country to advertise it . . . of course you have a ban on alcohol advertisements during children’s programs, because the last time I checked it was illegal for children to consume alcohol. The last time I checked, it was not illegal for children to consume McDonald’s. It might be undesirable for them to eat too much McDonald’s, but while there is not a safe level of consumption of tobacco, there is a safe level of consumption of McDonald’s. In the absence of excess consumption of it, I do not think a case is advanced by the Labor Party. What Labor would do is to ban all food and drink advertisements during programs classified as children’s programs and also general programs which are likely to be widely watched by children.[iv]
Howard’s generalisation that if it is legal, it can be advertised, is incoherent. For example, tobacco is a legal – if now a highly expensive – product in Australia, but advertising cigarettes is not permitted during so-called children’s time television, adult time television, in magazines, newspapers, anywhere. Further, his claim that Labor would also ban healthy food products during children’s watching time is unsubstantiated as well as nonsensical.
At this time, Tony Abbott was Minister for Health and Ageing. He would occupy that position for over four years, a relatively long period for somebody in a health-related portfolio. Like John Howard, Abbott was no fan of government restrictions on junk food, a stance he would not modify despite widespread criticism of his actions, or lack thereof, over a sustained period. His first intervention in this area in 2005 laid the blame for children’s lousy food habits on poor parenting, arguing that if fathers and mothers were ‘foolish enough to feed their kids on a diet of Coca-Cola, well they should lift their game and lift it urgently’ as they were in ‘charge of what goes into kids’ mouths’.’[v]
The issue of restricting junk food advertising persisted though Abbott was still intransigent. When state health ministers met in Brisbane in July 2006, they fixed on circumventing Abbott and going directly to the Prime Minister. In the words of Stephen Robertson, the Queensland Health Minister, this was the fourth time a ‘partial ban’ had been proposed ‘and on each occasion, Tony Abbott, has been the stumbling block’. [vi] One might have expected that Crikey would flatly state that ‘Tony Abbott has it wrong when he explains why his government will not ban junk food advertising directed at children’[vii], but the Minister’s attitude, and his belief that this was a matter of individual responsibility, also aroused disquiet amongst some government backbenchers, most prominently Dr Mal Washer, former general practitioner, and Liberal MP for Moore in Western Australia.
Once again, slack parents were the major factor identified by Abbott as was the killjoy approach in frowning on ‘eating fast food irregularly as a treat’. The Minister added a cringeworthy message that ‘[f]ast food shouldn’t be a substitute for mum or dad going into the kitchen and cooking a decent meal for the whole family.’[viii]
And, of course, somehow, the Labor Party was also at fault, according to Abbott, for such restrictions were typical ‘of the ALP’s “banners and taxers” mentality.’ The scent of Margaret Thatcher’s overquoted, and misunderstood, axiom about the non-existence of society was distinctly present. It was not in the government’s remit to intervene in this domestic arena. Once again, it was back to individual living rooms and individual families. Abbott stated that if parents were ’upset about the ads, they can turn the television off’, or they could ‘be a little more involved in what their kids do with their money’. [ix] Parents of Australia, you have been told.
Before anybody in my imaginary audience raises their hand, and asks if this isn’t getting a bit one sided, Abbott’s stance on junk food was echoed in January 2015 by no less than that bête noire of the right, Victorian Premier, Daniel Andrews. Andrews firmly rebutted calls to ban a McDonald’s outlet from its location within the Royal Children’s Hospital in Parkville though he rarely rose above the level of ridiculing his opponents.
Premier Daniel Andrews has lampooned calls by health experts to exclude fast food giant McDonald’s from children’s hospitals, describing the idea as “nanny stateism”. Mr Andrews passionately defended the right for parents to choose what to feed their children, and said Macca’s was “here to stay” in the Royal Children’s Hospital. The premier also gave the green light to McDonald’s bidding for a spot at the new Monash Children’s Hospital. “The notion that it’s somehow a bad thing to give a sick child a treat, to give a sibling of a sick child a visit to McDonald’s, that’s just nonsense”, Mr Andrews said. “People who would like to tell parents every single thing they ought do and not do, that sort of nanny stateism undermines the legitimate warnings we have just given parents about not leaving their kids in (hot) cars, frankly.”[x]
As an aside, when I quoted this statement in a lecture shortly afterwards, a student raised their hand and said, ‘Fair go, mate, he’s only been Premier for a few months’. My counter was to quote public health expert, Rob Moodie, who pointed out that one of the several flaws in the Premier’s argument was ‘making the fast food chain “a part of the hospital” . . . gave it more nutritional credibility with many families’.[xi]
Besides curtailing advertising, other measures have been proposed, and in some cases implemented, in an attempt to improve the standard of discretionary diet choices. These include more detailed labelling on food products, public information services such as the recently introduced CSIRO app and diet (for which, see below) and education programs in the public sphere. The latter’s efficacy has been dismissed out of hand by several conservative commentators including Murdoch journalist Adam Creighton, generally without substantiation.[xii]
In 2021, the creation of the CSIRO’s Junk Food Analyser which complemented the same organisation’s Total Wellbeing Diet, attracted some attention in the media.[xiii] Just overlook the excruciating style in the following Guardian article:
What happens when you take every culinary indulgence – every afternoon biscuit, ham sarnie, scoop of ice-cream and post-work glass of wine – and add them together over the course of a month? The Junk Food Analyser, a quick slash come-to-Jesus moment from the CSIRO, does just that. And the results can be confronting . . . ‘This category’, which the CSIRO generally refers to as ‘discretionary foods’, includes alcohol, takeaway, processed meats and other more typical junk foods such as chips, cake and soft drink . . . [xiv]
The result of these consumption patterns was revealed in the first paragraph of this article. Every day almost eighty percent of Australians eat too much of the wrong food. Yet how many people consult the Junk Food Analyser or follow the Total Wellbeing Diet?
Any attempt to change poor dietary behaviour, in Australia or elsewhere, must reckon with the economic might of the beverage and food companies, the influence of their peak organisations and the skill of their lobbyists. Their power was clearly demonstrated by a largely forgotten political cause célèbre from February 2014, which saw Assistant Health Minister, Fiona Nash, first look foolish, then deceptive, as an online food health rating program, developed over two and a half years by her department, was pulled, without any credible excuse, on the day it was launched. That cancellation aroused suspicion that the Minister had been got at by groups with a lot of clout. Suspicion became disbelief ‘when it was revealed that Nash’s chief of staff, Alistair Furnival, who had been centrally involved in the decision to close the site, had been a partner in a lobbying company that worked for the junk food industry’. In describing the whole business as ‘bizarre’, Rodney Tiffen was being generous – it comes straight out of Kafka or Flann O’Brien. [xv] And Nash had form already. In November 2013, the Alcohol and Other Drugs Council of Australia (ADCA), a respected source of expert advice on addiction, went into voluntary administration after the Abbott government defunded them, apparently in an effort to balance the budget, redirect resources, coalesce efforts.[xvi] For some, it showed clearly that Prime Minister Abbott, like Minister Abbott, wished to stress the role of the individual in sorting out their lifestyle and pet addictions rather than having the government intervene.
We return then to the theme of blaming the consumer, or when these consumers are children, blaming their parents. It is one thing to call for individuals to take some responsibility for their health, but we should avoid condemning, or patronising, those people whose food choices are curtailed by a range of factors, including lack of income, lack of knowledge of the right foods, lack of food preparation skills, social deprivation, psychological issues, and addiction. I am not suggesting that this is easy. In 2014 Victoria joined the Livelighter anti-obesity campaign which had originated in Western Australia, and which continues to this day. Images of excess flesh being squeezed were contrasted with ‘toxic fat’ within the abdomen, fat which was undoubtedly not assisting your health. But some, with justice, felt that this could be counterproductive.
So often the last thing they [ie. the overweight] need is a blow to their self-esteem, which can send them into precisely the traps the ads are warning against; eating badly. Shame is often the very thing from which they cannot escape.[xvii]
Exercising moderation in consuming salt or sugar laden products is an excellent ideal but like many excellent ideals requires opportunity, education and effort. An obesogenic environment does not assist as the following article, describing a Deakin University initiative, indicates:
Public health experts have long argued that when it comes to preventing obesity, we need to stop blaming individuals. Our new online tool, released today, confirms we live in an environment where the odds of having a healthy diet are heavily stacked against us. Unhealthy foods are readily available and heavily marketed to us by the food industry. This makes it very easy to over-consume unhealthy foods. It also makes it very difficult to consistently select healthy options . . . Australian children cannot escape unhealthy food marketing. As they travel to school, and play and watch sport in their community, kids are exposed to a constant barrage of promotions for unhealthy food and drinks.[xviii]
Compare too, the relative weight of an Australian university versus a multinational. If you are in the alcohol or tobacco business, it is now difficult to spruik your claims or advance your cause as a benign producer of healthy products. But producers of prepared or processed foods can at least attempt to convince their customers that the products are not only cheap and convenient but also healthy. For example, this was taken from the Kellogg’s website in September 2014. In the intervening years I hope they have included ‘dads’ as the other parent who can buy cereals:
Kids love delicious Kellogg cereals, and moms love that they are simple, convenient and nutritious. Try Kellogg cereals for breakfast, and enjoy them as part of snacks and meals throughout the day.
Kellogg Company was founded on a commitment to nutrition. This commitment remains at the core of our business today . . .To share complete information on the benefits of cereal, we’ve developed Cereal: The Complete Story . . . [Four part series] Nutrition: Focuses on nutrition benefits of ready-to-eat cereal. Misunderstood: Debunks common misperceptions of ready-to-eat cereal. Popular/Value: Discusses consumer preference and affordability.[xix]
Tobacco companies can no longer sponsor sport in this country. Alcohol companies may advertise at sporting events but these days TAC is a preferred club patron. On the other hand, McDonald’s and CUB have a bigger presence in grass roots sport than most of the players. Perusing my Ballarat Football and Netball League Record for Round 2, 22 April 2023 we find that it is the McDonald’s Ballarat Football Netball League. On the front cover, in full colour, is a picture of a netballer from Redan. On her uniform, above her left breast, are McDonald’s Golden Arches as is the case with the other netballers and footballers. Moving through the magazine we are informed that Carlton Draught is the ‘official beer’ of the netball and football competitions which might be news to my grandson and granddaughter who have just commenced in the underage divisions. They too wear the McDonald’s logo on their outfits. Back to the Record. The weekly interview with a prominent footballer is called ‘At The Bar’ and I do not think they are referring to the legal system. On the next page is ‘Try The Delicious New Menu Only at McCafe’, a full page listing of the items you can find at the seven outlets in the Central Highlands specified in the advertisement. The kilojoules of the four recycled products (only the menu is claimed to be new) are stated in a rather small font, and under the abbreviation ‘kj’, which might not mean a lot to some. This informative page occurs several times in the Record. These are in monochrome but on the back cover it is displayed in glorious technicolour. Each page of the team sheets is also headed ‘McDonald’s Ballarat Football Netball League’.
Now, one may query just how much of this massive advertising roll out is absorbed by spectators, participants and officials on the day. I had had hardly noticed it prior to preparing this article. To shore up the sales pitch though, under-age kids also get weekly player awards which are in the form of McDonald’s vouchers. And, of course, the oval, formerly known as Eureka, which is the major sporting venue in Ballarat, and one which hosts AFL matches, is now known as Mars Stadium under a naming rights agreement. Mars is a major employer in this regional city. (You have to get your chocolate bars from somewhere.) I might have some doubts about the reach of advertising but experts in the metabolic syndrome field do not.
In the prosperous West it has been the power of the supermarkets and ruthless promotion, aimed especially at the young, by Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, Mars, and other food colossi that have driven up the consumption of fats and carbohydrates, particularly sugar . . .Far more is spent on advertising than the cost of food.[xx]
The most radical approach for dietary reform in Australia would be taxing ingredients and/or final products to either artificially raise prices of junk food (cf. cigarettes) or to compel the manufacturers to reduce the levels of problematic substances such as salt and sugar. This is not currently on the political agenda in this country though importation and sale of non-prescription vapes have been proscribed as I write, and the Federal budget will see the tobacco tax lifted by 5%. In Britain, however, 2021 saw a controversial official report, headed by restauranteur Henry Dimbleby, call for radical action:
Its most eye-catching recommendation is a levy of £3 a kilo on sugar and £6 a kilo on salt sold wholesale for use in processed food, restaurants and catering, which it says would be a world first. This would raise up to £3.4 bn a year, some of which should fund an expansion of free school meals to an extra 1.1 million children and an overhaul of Britain’s food and cooking culture. The proposal, which could put 1p on a bag of crisps and 7p on a Mars bar, was criticised as regressive as it would hit the poorest consumers hardest. However, Dimbleby believes the tax would incentivise manufacturers to reduce salt and sugar levels by reformulating products.[xxi]
And, after an interminable delay as Tory administrations rose and fell, the outcome was probably predictable with Dimbleby himself condemning the government’s response. The most radical proposals in that response were the calls for increased domestic production of tomatoes and making it easier to sell wild venison, the latter being rather quaint in my opinion. Recommended sugar and salt taxes intended ‘to fund healthy food options for those in poverty, were . . ignored with the issue shunted into an upcoming health inequalities white paper’.[xxii]
I conclude that the need for reform in this area has been established. That is the easy bit. I do not think that Australia is ready for such a stringent measure as a salt or sugar tax, given the Greens, and to a lesser extent Labor, are still talking to a largely uninterested population about the need to ban junk food advertising in children’s advertising time. Baby steps then. Get the Golden Arches out of their role in sports sponsorship, don’t grant naming rights over football stadiams to deeply unpleasant companies such as the confectionary giants, ensure that beverage lobbyists cannot get easy access to Federal Parliament via ‘orange’ passes distributed by amenable MPs. Don’t have hamburger floggers in the same hospital precinct as the Metabolic Diseases clinic. The harder, the much harder, task is to address these three issues:
- What are the relative roles of the individual and family versus the state?
- How can we amend food environments that encourage people, especially those doing it tough, to look at healthier options?
- And for all their good intentions, how we can get programs devised by CSIRO or Deakin out to people who have never heard of those worthy institutions and might not understand what they are being advised to follow?
The reference to the body as a temple comes from St. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, 6:19.
[i] Sander L. Gilman, Obesity: The Biography, Oxford University Press, New York, 2010, pp.158-159.
[ii] Herald Sun, 25 September 2010.
[iii] ‘New CSIRO tool to combat Australia’s #1 diet issue’, CSIRO, 7 April 2021.
[iv] Commonwealth Parliamentary Debates, House of Representatives, 22 June 2004.
[v] ‘No ban on junk food ads: Abbott’, Sydney Morning Herald, 18 October 2005.
[vi] ‘Ministers push for junk food ad ban’, Age, 27 July 2006.
[vii] ‘Why Tony Abbott is the wrong person to talk about obesity’, Crikey, 5 September 2006.
[viii] ‘Junk food ad ban not on: Abbott’, Sydney Morning Herald, 16 May 2007.
[ix] ‘Abbott hits back over junk food’, Age 1 August 2007.
[x] ‘McDonald’s “here to stay” at Royal Children’s Hospital, Daniel Andrews says’, Herald Sun, 7 January 2015.
[xi] ‘McDonald’s “here to stay”.
[xii] Adam Creighton, I apologise for also citing this article in my previous article for the APH.
[xiii] ‘New CSIRO tool to combat Australia’s #1 diet issue’, CSIRO, 7 April 2021.
[xiv] ‘ “Good shock value”: CSIRO holds a mirror to Australia’s junk . . . .’, Guardian, 13 April 2021.
[xv] Rodney Tiffen, ‘The Abbott government’s war on transparency’, Inside Story, 5 June 2014.
[xvi] Helen Davidson, ‘Drug-harm minimisation body closes after Coalition withdraws funding’, Guardian, 27 November 2013.
[xvii] Amanda Dunn, Age, 30 August 2014.
[xviii] ‘No, it’s not just a lack of control that makes . . .’, The Conversation, 15 June 2021. Also see Deakin University, 16 June 2021.
[xix] Kellogg’s website as of September 2014.
[xx] Walter Gratzer, Terrors of the Table: The Curious History of Nutrition, Oxford University Press, New York, 2005, pp. 212-213.
[xxi] ‘Food strategy calls for £3bn sugar and salt tax to improve UK’s diet’, Guardian, (UK edition), 15 July 2021.
[xxii] ‘Food plan for England condemned by its own lead adviser’, Guardian (UK edition), 13 June 2022.