Plain packaging for junk food?

This article was first published on The Conversation

Australia should consider a healthy food rebate, tax on sugary drinks, and regulated portion sizes argue health experts, as New York pushes ahead with government regulation to address the obesity epidemic.

The New York City health commissioner behind a proposed cap on the container size of sugary soft drinks has argued government regulation of portion sizes is justifiable and could help fight America’s obesity problem.

Writing in the latest issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association, Dr Thomas Farley writes governments that do nothing about the marketing of high-calorie sugary drinks are inviting even higher rates of obesity, diabetes and related mortality.

It’s a view shared by Australian health policy experts, who say self-regulation by food groups will never be enough to address the obesity problem. In the US it’s a problem that costs 100,000 lives and $150 billion in health care costs every year.

“What it is necessary to do is to create a neutral environment for consumers, because at the moment we have an environment that is obesity-promoting,” said Bebe Loff, director of the Michael Kirby Centre for Public Health and Human Rights at Monash University.

“We don’t even give people a good sort of chance to combat the environment that’s encouraging them to buy more of these goods.”

The food and drinks industry is using the same tactics as the tobacco and alcohol industry argues Rob Moodie, professor of global health at University of Melbourne.

“There’s no way they’re going to move unless there’s regulation in my view.”

Professor Moodie said saturated advertising to Australia’s children and sponsorship of key sports created a culture where eating junk food and drinking junk drinks was the norm.

“Things won’t change until we get substantial changes to foods that have lower levels of salt, sugar and fat. That probably won’t happen until there’s regulation or the serious threat of regulation,“ Professor Moodie said.

In his article, Dr Farley details the measures taken by New York’s City Board of Health to “regulate food products that harm the most people”.

The measures include banning the use of trans fat in New York restaurants, pushing food companies to reduce the high levels of sodium in food, requiring chain restaurants to post calorie counts on menus, and imposing a 1-cent-per-ounce excise tax on sugary drinks.

The food industry continues to argue against the proposed sugary drinks portion rule, but Dr Farley said the sale of huge portions is driven by the food industry, not by consumer demand.

Kerin O’Dea, professor of population health and nutrition at University of South Australia, agreed.

“Large portion sizes are a great generator of profit. Unless there’s regulation they’re not going to change.”

Professor O’Dea said labelling of menus was critical so people knew how much they were consuming, and could make informed choices.

State governments have started to mandate for calorie counts on menus, applying schemes to fast food restaurants with more than 50 outlets. McDonalds already does this in Australia, and this week moved to do the same across America, catching up on New York where calorie counts on menus have been mandated since 2008.

Professor O’Dea said she’d like to see measures introduced that encourage people to choose a healthy diet.

“We have a diesel fuel rebate for people in the country. I would like us to have a healthy food rebate for people in isolated locations, particularly aboriginal communities… so financially people have an incentive to buy healthy food.”

But Rob Moodie said with more people dying from preventable deaths and huge strains on the health care system affecting both state and federal governments, measures akin to those imposed on the tobacco industry might be required.

“We have a particular problem in Australia with large, well organised and very aggressive junk food and drinks industries. To quote Professor Kelly Brownell from Yale, one of the leading scientists in this area: ‘When the history of the world’s attempt to address obesity is written, the greatest failure may be collaboration with and appeasement of the food industry’.”

Professor Loff said stemming the tide of disciplines dedicated to the marketing of food was a huge ask, but controlling the portion size of sugary drinks was a good start.

She added that it took 60 years, and a decision by the government to ignore its own guidelines for regulating, to see the plain packaging crackdown on the tobacco industry.

“What I would think our government would say in response to something like banning the oversized sweet drink containers is that not only do you have to show that there is this informational problem, or that the harm created outweighs whatever potential benefits there are; you would also have to show the impact that intervention was going to have on dealing with the problem, that is lowering obesity.”

Professor Loff said what’s required is restructure of both our physical and psychological environments to give everyone a fair chance to protect their health.

“I’m not suggesting it be welfare-promoting, but suggesting that it be neutral so we’re not encouraged every time we turn around when walking through a supermarket, and being bombarded with all sorts of imaginative marketing techniques.”


  1. Technojames
    19 Sep 12
    11:52 am

  2. Yes, junk food should be wrapped in plain white paper or.. I don’t know… old newspapers??

  3. Anonymous
    19 Sep 12
    12:44 pm

  4. Too much effort. Just get rid of healthcare, drop taxes on fast food (+ smokes) and let natural selection do its job!

  5. Dylan
    19 Sep 12
    1:11 pm

  6. OH FFS what is going on in this world….why not just chop the tongues out of kids who eat bad food and be done with it. Then give their parents 500 face palms in the public pillary.

  7. Daniel-Jacob Santhou
    19 Sep 12
    1:11 pm

  8. Plain Tobacco packaging.
    Plain Fast Food packaging.

    Perhaps Plain Alcohol packaging then?

    After all, excess consumption can lead to many health issues. The research proves it.

    Let’s all just take a step back and prevent evolution.

  9. Paul the freelance writer
    19 Sep 12
    1:45 pm

  10. … ‘When the history of the world’s attempt to address obesity is written, the greatest failure may be collaboration with and appeasement of the food industry’.”

    Hungry Jacks is the new Hitler and Nachos are the new Nazis.

    Their case is overstated and their language melodramatic to the point of offensive absurdity. And encouraging government regulation over parental control (in cases such as childhood obesity) is never a good idea.

    As for the suggestion of paying people in “isolated locations, particularly aboriginal communities” to eat good food, how patronisingly racist – Here’s a few dollars, go down the supermarket (there is one close by, isn’t there?) and buy yourself a fresh lettuce.

  11. well
    19 Sep 12
    2:56 pm

  12. Define junk food?

  13. no-one important
    19 Sep 12
    6:03 pm

  14. @well, my thoughts exactly. This is academics trying to justify their tenure. What about all those breakfast cereals that are basically a bowl of sugar with milk that the elite athletes promote. Where does it stop? You call in to get a kebab at 1 in the morning on the way home form the pub ‘sorry we can’t sell kebabs anymore, here have some carrot and celery sticks’. Every time this type of argument comes up – and it’s often – I have the same question that is yet to be answered; Why is the manufacturer of a product responsible for the purchasing decisions of the consumer? When did personal responsibility become someone elses responsibility?

  15. Salad Blusher
    19 Sep 12
    10:59 pm

  16. @no one important.

    High sugar cereals would definitely be under the junk food banner wouldn’t they? I still scratch my head at how Nutri Grain are allowed to market the way they do?

    I agree that it is hard to define ‘junk food’, because maple syrup (if eaten every day, in heavy portions) could be bad for you, however once in a while (say on pancake day) all good. That is the hard part.

    Junk food abuse needs to be addressed. If I had to pay loads for maple syrup, because it is high sugar, I could live with it if it is just once a year v every week, but would that stop the abuse?

    (I am not saying that obese people are obese because of maple syrup.) Macca’s is cheap as chips though isn’t it……………………..

  17. AdGrunt
    20 Sep 12
    6:06 am

  18. Beautifully coded language in the article. Which basically says, poor people and aboriginals are too weak to think for themselves and simply react to shiny, coloured packets. Young children are equally shunning the family evening meal, waltzing down to the local greasy spoon unabetted and spending their vast income on having a burger instead. What planet are they on?

    Make the packets plain and the problem is solved. Yeah, right. And academia wonders why it is losing respect?

  19. Bob
    20 Sep 12
    10:17 am

  20. Instead of targeting the food as a whole, why not only target unhealthy people? For instance, one of the conditions for accessing public healthcare could be to attend a fat camp (assuming you’re fat).

  21. Jacqueline
    21 Sep 12
    3:04 pm

  22. I wonder why it has taken the government this long.

    There is SO much sugar content in “fat free” products. It is SO misleading. (and yes, cereal one of the worst)

    Sugar content needs to be on the front of the packet at least – it needs to be made obvious. Sugar is a drug. A lot of people do not know this.

    And kids get diagnosed with ADHD…….. It’s because of parents not knowing how much sugar they are feeding their kids. This is very tragic.

    Educate yourselves and if you can’t…… let the government do this.