BEHIND-the-scenes lobbying, exerting influence in the corridors of power and talking up the economic benefits — they’re standard big-business operating tactics.
But as Australia’s obesity rate soars above 60 per cent, some academics and medicos accuse fast food and soft-drink giants of pressuring the federal government to stop blaming high-calorie food, and to cut funding to research it considers biased.
The food and beverage lobby says it merely wants governments to stop blaming their products for all Australians’ weight problems and focus on exercise and health.
World Health Organisation Collaborating Centre for Obesity Prevention says the industry has vast ‘backroom’ influence.
“We need greater transparency around governance and public policy-making because there is a lot of pressure behind closed doors,” Professor of Nutrition and Global Health, Boyd Swinburn, said.
“Health policy is being shaped by those with a commercial interest in the outcome,” he said, citing junk food advertising to children.
“It’s in all the ‘recommendations for action’ but it never happens due to the tactics of the industry.”
Fast food and soft drink manufacturers have inserted themselves in professional bodies such as the Nutritional Society of Australia (NSA).
Coca-Cola, for example, is a gold sponsor of the NSA and sponsored last year’s ‘Insights into weight loss maintenance’ research seminar.
The Dietitians Association of Australia (DAA) has commercial partnerships with Nestle and Arnotts.
“Both the NSA and the DAA will say sponsorship does not affect their judgment, but these organisations (the sponsors) are not stupid, it’s a core platform because it works, it buys influence,” Prof Swinburn said.
NSA president Dr Malcolm Riley said sponsorship didn’t affect its independence.
“While potential financial assistance from sponsors is considered as part of the planning of specific activities, the strategic plan for the society is independent of sponsorship (and) is able to operate without corporate sponsorship.”
A spokeswoman for the DAA said sponsorship did not affect its independence.
“DAA understands the potential for conflict of interest when working with corporate partners, and we are vigilant in remaining independent. We have binding legal contracts which protect the independence of both organisations.”
Professor Heather Yeatman of the Public Health Association of Australia said the industry had too much influence.
“They are trying to influence policy and key individuals, they are employing scientists to undertake research in their interest and he who pays the piper calls the tune,” she said.
Researchers point to a study put out by Coca-Cola Institute of Health and Wellness which blamed obesity on a lack of physical activity.
Political lobbyists are also enlisted when issues arise that could hurt business. When Western Australia considered the “cash for cans” idea that has been successful in the Northern Territory, the chair of the Container Deposit Legislation Taskforce, John Hyde MP, saw the lobbying power of the industry.
“The beverage industry professionally did their mapping and lobbied ministers and other non-CDL concerned party and government officials (against the scheme).”
Former NSW shadow health minister Dr Andrew McDonald said the junk food industry was a “fearsome and mean lobby” and the Food and Grocery Council was “deeply embedded” in the Liberals.
“(Their members) have no interest in the health of the population, they are a lobby group and their job is to maximise profits and they’re closely entangled with the Liberal Party,” Dr McDonald said.
Former Liberal ACT Chief Minister Kate Carnell is former chief executive of the AFGC. Its current boss is Gary Dawson, former senior adviser to John Howard. He said lobbying was legitimate.
“The AFGC is open about its advocacy and policy positions in support of food and grocery manufacturers and suppliers. Submissions, media releases, speeches, op-eds and so forth are public documents and represent legitimate activity by any industry association or NGO,” he said.
Geoff Parker of the Australian Beverages Council said: “Advocacy and lobbying are legitimate tools all sectors use, be they industry, consumer groups, health campaigners and even governments with other governments.”
Dr McDonald, a paediatrician in Campbelltown, said calls for action on childhood obesity kept getting “muddied” by the industry.
“They certainly have too much sway — yet I see 10-year-olds that are 100 kilograms, it’s not uncommon. Obesity is the new malnutrition,” he said.
The Obesity Policy Coalition wants the federal government to double the tax on sugary beverages.
In 2012, Tracy Comans from Griffith University and her team of health economics researchers were funded through the Australian National Preventative Health Agency (ANPHA) to investigate whether a sugar tax on beverages would cut obesity.
When the Liberals won office, the ANPHA was canned. Gary Dawson from the AFGC applauded the decision.
Research funds that had already been awarded were moved to the National Health and Medical Research Council. Tracy Comans’ continued funding, she was told, had to be approved personally by then health minister Peter Dutton.
With one year left to go on the research, he pulled the funding in June last year.
“I know we were targeted, Peter Dutton had mentioned it on the news before the election that (the research) was a waste of money. Absolutely I’m sure he was lobbied by the industry,” she said.
A spokesman for Peter Dutton denied he had been lobbied or influenced by industry on the Griffith project.
“Mr Dutton has never tolerated taxpayer money being wasted and stopped funding ‘think’ projects around ‘fat taxes’ because the government had no interest in their introduction. The minister didn’t need to meet with food and beverage companies in taking these decisions; his view was long settled.”
Mr Dawson (AFGC) said the council “openly advocated for the incorporation of the ANPHA into the Department of Health on the basis that as a separate agency it was duplicating activity already underway at state and federal levels and wasting scarce health dollars”.
Mr Dawson also denied his, and Kate Carnell’s’ Liberal Party connections played any beneficial role for the AFGC.
“Both Ms Carnell and I have represented industry’s positions to Labor and Coalition state and federal governments. Given its reach, the food industry achieves broader public health outcomes compared to activists seeking to chase taxpayer funded research grants.”
The Griffith University researchers are pushing on in their spare time, for free. The early findings won’t please industry.
“Taxing sugary drinks would be a winner, it’s publicly supported, it would raise significant amounts of money, it would reduce consumption and the money raised would be used for other health promotion,” Mrs Comans said.
“It will shift people’s thinking.”
Most eye opening to read this. Obesity is rife in many countries. Sugars, fructose are the hidden troublemakers.Until the health experts and manufacturers are free from the hold that big companies exert will our waist sizes diminish? I am not sure that sugar tax is the best answer.
I have been a long time advocate of how awful pop/soda drinks are for you... they are addictive and cause many health issues. I stopped drinking this drink over 20 years ago and that alone help me to get a handle on my health... if you ask my youngest what I think of pop/soda, she says I say it is evil... lol... I am not kidding though, it is awful. Now if I could break other sugar addictions she has too
So interesting. I have a niece who lives in Australia......her little daughter (4) is overweight. It saddened me when she came to visit this Spring.
Hidden sugars are in so many foods these days.
Preparing fresh (not everybody has the time) is the way to go.
I only drink water and I have a couple of cups of coffee a day.
I am also fortunate that I have never touched such drinks, purely because I do not like them.
The food issue will go on forever for sure. People use food as a crutch and for comfort (I know many that do)
Well it's not just the lobbyists that push it here, there are also a couple of significant federal pollies whose electorates are dominated by sugar growers/sugar politics, that gives it a push from within. I would also be wary of allowing politicians to get their mitts on a tax generated by sugar sales since they would then become addicted to the revenue and we'd never see the end of it, just like has happened here with gambling + gambling taxes.
Isn't it somewhat paradoxical that they have worked out how to generate huge profits from the low fat high carb approach whilst not being able to move their business model forward to a similar high fat but low sugar approach? It would be an easy thing for them to make the switch, turn around 180' and with a minimal amount of spin it would be as if nothing had changed.
Seriously, the food pushers are missing some amazing business opportunities by not bringing tasty and filling high sat fat snacks to market. You can pick up leftover industrial strength sat fat for a song nowadays due to the last 40 years of anti-fat hysteria -- it should be an ingredient capable of producing a high added value.
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