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Select Committee into the Obesity Epidemic in Australia Report Speech

Wednesday 5 December


Labor welcomes today's tabling of the report of the Senate Select Committee into the Obesity Epidemic in Australia. As the committee's deputy chair, I'd like to express my gratitude to all of those individuals and organisations from across Australia who made submissions to this inquiry—some 153 submissions—and also to those who appeared at public hearings.


As the chair, Senator Di Natale, has outlined, obesity in Australia is a really serious problem. That is why I have 'enjoyed' this in the sense of being informed about what we can do at a policy level to tackle what has been termed an epidemic because the rates of obesity continue to rise. We have worked very constructively through this Senate select committee to come up with what I believe is a really constructive, full and informative report that has a number of key recommendations which I think will be of huge benefit to the Australian population going forward if they are implemented.


The rates of obesity are that 28 per cent of the population aged 15 and over are obese, making us the fifth highest among the OECD countries. And Australia's rate of childhood obesity is increasing rapidly. Our 2014-15 data showed that 63 per cent of Australian adults were overweight or obese, with 71 per cent of those men and 56 per cent women. There are currently over one million children in Australia who are overweight or obese, while 20 per cent of children aged two to four and 27 per cent of children and adolescents aged five to 17 are overweight or obese. I think those statistics are alarming because we know that the short-term health impacts for children and adolescents include chronic conditions such as breathing difficulties, fractures, hypertension, insulin resistance and early markers of cardiovascular disease. That's why government really needs to act to address this issue. The most significant long-term health impacts of childhood obesity that manifest into adulthood are cardiovascular disease, diabetes, musculoskeletal disorders and certain types of cancer.


We had a wide range of stakeholders make submissions to this committee's inquiry and they urged government to target health interventions and to hold broad education campaigns. And, as the chair has referred to, they raised the need for a national obesity task force, which is one of the key recommendations in this report. I think, indeed, many of us in this place were alarmed to learn that there was no body within government looking at addressing obesity. So as a start, I think that is something government could get on with and do straightaway.


Some of the key submitters who we heard from during this inquiry's hearings included the Centre for Research Excellence in the Early Prevention of Obesity in Childhood; The Children's Hospital at Westmead in Sydney; Diabetes Australia; Choice; The Root Cause; the Global Obesity Centre; Parent's Voice; the Health Star Rating Advisory Committee; the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare; the Public Health Association of Australia; the National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation; the Australian Local Government Association; and, of course, the Department of Health. We listened to some passionate individuals, and one I want to highlight particularly is Belinda Smith, from a small organisation called The Root Cause. She shared with us about the foods that were in children's lunch boxes every day. I think that's a very good place to start.


Belinda and The Root Cause believe that with a focused effort at the grassroots level on school food—around what is in children's lunch boxes—it is possible to prevent and curb childhood obesity, plus improve on the sorts of academic results we have had thus far. She told me about an Australian tour that The Root Cause went on to transform children's health called the Real Food Lunchbox Project. Out of that project, she learnt that children just want to fit in. In saying that, children want to eat whatever their friends are eating. If their friends are eating packets, they eat packets. But if they are all eating real food—fruit and vegetables—then even the kids whose parents say they are fussy eaters will eat the fruit and vegetables.


Having listened to Belinda and hearing about her experience, which was in schools right across the country, where she saw pretty much the same thing happening, I think we can really learn from addressing this at the school level and at the educational campaign level and learn from looking at what jurisdictions overseas have done on that front. France and the UK are two easy examples. In France they actually have a cooked lunch within the school. I think the UK has a similar model to some degree.


When kids are turning up with sugary drinks, sugary foods, packaged foods or processed foods in their lunchbox it does not set them up well for the rest of their lives. I know it's quick and easy, but long-term it is doing them damage. We need to support families and schools to address this so that kids eat well, because not only is there a benefit to their physical health; there is a massive benefit to their mental health and to their learning capacity. That is something that we heard through evidence provided by organisations such as The Root Cause. There are so many individuals and organisations that are so passionate about this issue because they're at the coalface and are seeing what is going on with our kids.


The rise of obesity in our kids is really, really worrying. That's why we've proposed these recommendations, as Senator Di Natale went to: a national obesity strategy; looking at food labelling and how we can improve food labelling; looking at food reformulation; looking at advertising; looking at education campaigns; looking at healthcare interventions; at community based multistrategy interventions. This is a holistic issue. Yes, government can play a role, but it is also about the broader community, and we need to support the broader community in playing the role that it can play.


Labor is very pleased to support the majority of the report's recommendations, such as the establishment of a task force; an obesity strategy; and labelling that's fit for purpose, which obviously represents the nutritional value of foods and beverages. However, while we agree with the majority of the recommendations, we have provided a short dissenting report on the implementation of the sugar-sweetened beverage tax, and on restrictions and the mandatory health-star rating on food and drink advertising. But, as Senator Di Natale, the chair, said, this is something where Labor accepts the logic. We accept the logic that a sugar tax is likely to reduce consumption and accelerate the reformulation effort, but we need to recognise, as we heard throughout this inquiry, that that is only one option, amongst many, to address overweight and obesity. We need to recognise it simply would not be effective without those other measures. I think in other jurisdictions like the UK and Mexico the evidence around a sugar-sweetened beverage tax is still emerging, particularly in relation to obesity rates, but it is something that we still need to monitor closely, and we will do that. Similarly, with the changing nature of children's viewing of advertising—children don't just sit down in front of the TV anymore; they're using iPads, iPhones, computers, you name it—we need to look at other ways in which advertising is filtering through. That's why we've committed to having a review in relation to the advertising approach.


We take this incredibly seriously. Labor really want to see action to address obesity, particularly childhood obesity, in our country. We need to support the next generation so that they can be healthy young adults.