Time to enact food policies in the National Preventive Health Strategy

Public Health Association of Australia logo. Text: 'National Preventive Health Strategy 2021-2030. Preventive Health Strategy: From paper to action.' Vector images of book, and running person.

Dr Bronwyn Ashton and Damian Maganja, Co-Convenors of the PHAA Food and Nutrition Special Interest Group

New data released on 27 June 2023 by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) showed that unhealthy weight and dietary factors continue to be the second and third largest preventable causes of ill health and early death in both females and males in Australia.

The facts are simple – currently too few Australians follow dietary recommendations and most Australians of all ages eat too few fruit and vegetables and too many products that are packed full of energy, sugar, saturated fat and sodium and low in fibre, vitamins, minerals and other beneficial nutrients.

Urgent, comprehensive action is needed to keep people safe from the harm caused by unhealthy foods and drinks, including by strengthening access to and consumption of healthy eating patterns. This is one of the key focus areas of the Australian Government’s National Preventive Health Strategy 2021-2030.

But as the Strategy stresses, “…the environment and the food systems where we live, work, play and age influence our dietary patterns strongly”. We are constantly surrounded by and bombarded with unhealthy products and related marketing, making it hard, if not almost impossible, for people to adopt healthy eating patterns. While the unhealthy food and beverage industries push their products for profit, food environments that undermine healthy eating patterns are driving life-threatening and chronic diseases like bowel, stomach and oesophageal cancer, coronary heart disease and stroke, and type 2 diabetes. It is vital to reduce the availability and promotion of unhealthy, ultra-processed products and improve the accessibility of healthy foods through a coordinated and comprehensive strategy. To do this, and improve the healthiness of our food systems, policy and practice changes must address the social and commercial determinants of unhealthy eating and incorporate actions to address these across diverse sectors.

Experts, including PHAA’s Food and Nutrition Special Interest Group (FANSIG), have long called for actions to improve the environment in which people make choices about food and nutrition. We’ve urged legislation to reduce children’s exposure to unhealthy food and beverage marketing, and supported a recent 2023 Healthy Kids Advertising Bill introduced by federal Member of Parliament, Dr Sophie Scamps. If passed, this Bill would provide a significant step toward meeting one of the National Preventive Health Strategy’s desired policy achievements, that “Children’s exposure to unhealthy food and drink marketing, branding and sponsorships is further restricted across all forms of media, including through digital media”. Implementing such regulation would create long lasting benefits for the health of Australian children.

FANSIG, along with public health sector allies such as Dietitians Australia, have also called for a new National Nutrition Strategy, to replace the outdated National Food and Nutrition Policy, now over 30 years old. It was welcome to see one of the National Preventive Health Strategy’s desired policy achievements by 2030 to be “Nutrition and food action in Australia is guided by a specific national policy document”. We’ll continue to advocate for the speedy development of this policy.

But action to improve healthy eating patterns in Australia is not just about creating plans. It’s just as, if not more important to enact and fund them. And a comprehensive, cohesive suite of measures is the way to achieve substantial change. As PHAA’s CEO, Adjunct Professor Terry Slevin notes, “when we unite them [public health measures] as a complementary, cohesive set of measures, they are far more likely to reduce the use of and harm from commercially promoted products like unhealthy food, alcohol, or gambling.”

And we already have an excellent list of desired policy achievements in the National Preventive Health Strategy. The desired achievements provide a blueprint for a comprehensive package across federal, state/territory and local Governments that can make it easier for people to adopt healthier eating patterns. They include:

“Structural and environmental barriers to breastfeeding are decreased through policy action”

“Children’s exposure to unhealthy food and drink marketing, branding and sponsorships is further restricted across all forms of media, including through digital media”

“Restricted promotion of unhealthy food and drinks at point of sale and at the end-of-aisle in prominent food retail environments, and increased promotion of healthy food options”

“Reduced sugar, saturated fat and sodium content of relevant packaged and processed foods through reformulation and serving size reduction, including consideration of tax reform”

“Consumer choice is guided by energy and ingredient labelling on all packaged alcoholic products”

The design, funding and enactment of this critical package needs strong government leadership, and appropriate governance arrangements, to ensure that public benefits are prioritised, and commercial conflicts of interest minimised. Policymakers must prioritise people’s health and wellbeing above the profits of those unhealthy food and beverage industries putting people at risk of premature death and disability.

As a society, we cannot afford to continue letting business interests dominate government thinking and policy to undermine effective public health action. We must set higher standards for both government and the unhealthy food and beverage industry to help people more easily adopt healthy eating patterns.

We know what to do. For the health of everyone in Australia, let’s continue to hold our government to account to fund and put these comprehensive policies in the National Preventive Health Strategy into action.


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