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Preventing weight gain: the dilemma of effective regulation

Government attention is diverted away from the problem during the regulatory reform process. Kristina Alexanderson

OBESE NATION: It’s time to admit it - Australia is becoming an obese nation. This series looks at how this has happened and more importantly, what we can do to stop the obesity epidemic.

Today, we look at whether we can regulate to curb the epidemic. Here Fiona Haines discusses the barriers to regulations that would help end the obesity epidemic while Bebe Loff and Helen Walls argue there’s a “gap” in regulation waiting to be filled with government action.

The burden of obesity is costly to individuals whose health is poor and who are often stigmatised. And it’s costly to governments through increased health costs. So, why isn’t more being done?

Tackling obesity effectively will involve increased regulation, such as requiring clear labels on food to make sure people know what is healthy (so-called traffic light labelling) and prohibiting junk food advertising to children during peak viewing hours. Both of these measures are recommendations of the 2009 Preventative Health Task Taskforce. And both make sense. But, getting effective regulation in place is hard. Why is it so difficult?

Firstly, regulatory reform is challenging for government. During the process of regulatory reform, government attention is diverted away from the problem at hand (in this case obesity) to responding to business concerns with their profitability. And to reassuring the population at large (often in the wake of some public pressure) that the government really is taking the problem seriously.

Front-of-packet traffic-light labelling would be an effective way to signal what foods are healthy. Ian Clark

Dig a little deeper and what is at issue is political legitimacy that must be maintained (and preferably enhanced if you are the incumbent government) through the reform process.

Regulatory reform always takes place in the context of maintaining political legitimacy. In turn, political legitimacy (or political risk as I call it in The Paradox of Regulation) rests on the horns of a dilemma between “keeping the economy going” (which often translates into responding to business demands) and “making people feel safe” (essentially, reassurance).

But a government tending to its legitimacy cannot simply be dismissed as engaged in a cynical political ploy. It may be, but without legitimacy governments struggle and ultimately fall. Legitimacy is critical to any government – of whatever persuasion.

It does mean, though, that regulatory reform is fraught – and the loser is too often a potentially effective measure to deal with a social problem. Governments across the world – including our own – have swung into action against obesity at least at the level of inquiries, recommendations and policy initiatives. But how well these translate into action depends on how a government manages its political risk.

The bargaining process often sees businesses taking some steps to appease government and public demands, such as putting labels on food, but not ones that communicate clearly and effectively, or a voluntary (and small) reduction in television advertising of junk food to children. It also sees governments reassuring us, by such measures as public campaigns with cute figures encouraging us to “exercise more”. Measures such as these are unlikely to make much of an impact in reducing our collective waistlines.

Limiting junk food advertising to children during peak viewing hours would be an effective measure. RichardBH/Flickr

Decisive action by governments – the oft-cited “strong political leadership” is critical to effective regulation. This must be based on weighing up available evidence and not just showing strength for the sake of it. Evidence is tricky, though. Pushing for “more research” is a common stalling tactic.

And there are additional challenges. Even if measures supported by the best available evidence (such as traffic light labelling on the front-of-food packaging and removing advertising junk food to children between 6am and 9pm as recommended in the Government’s response to the National Preventative Health Taskforce) are implemented, regulation is no panacea.

Regulation suggests that you can reduce a problem (such as obesity) while keeping all the benefits (to individuals, companies and governments) that have led to higher rates of obesity. These benefits are part of a very long list that includes cheap takeaway food, sprawling suburbs with affordable housing but little public transport or amenities, short meal breaks, long working hours, quick treats for ratty kids when you’re tired from a long day’s work, high profits in the food processing industries, foods that are transportable and keep for long periods without spoiling and so on.

Regulation acts a bit like a “surgical bombing raid” – it promises much, but often delivers less.

The Commonwealth Government was wrong in rejecting traffic light labelling. But, comprehensive measures to tackle obesity will not come in a single convenient package. Tackling obesity in a serious manner will bring considerable public benefit. But it creates losers – both powerful businesses and ordinary folk – in the short term. That is our dilemma.

This is part six of our series Obese Nation. To read the other instalments, follow the links below:

Part one: Mapping Australia’s collective weight gain

Part two: Explainer: overweight, obese, BMI – what does it all mean?

Part three: Explainer: how does excess weight cause disease?

Part four: Recipe for disaster: creating a food supply to suit the appetite

Part five: What’s economic growth got to do with expanding waistlines?

Part seven: Filling the regulatory gap in chronic disease prevention

Part eight: Why a fat tax is not enough to tackle the obesity problem

Part nine: Education, wealth and the place you live can affect your weight

Part ten: Innovative strategies needed to address Indigenous obesity

Part eleven: Two books, one big issue: Why Calories Count and Weighing In

Part twelve: Putting health at the heart of sustainability policy

Part thirteen: Want to stop the obesity epidemic? Let’s get moving

Part fourteen: Fat of the land: how urban design can help curb obesity

Part fifteen: Industry-sponsored self-regulation: it’s just not cricket

Part sixteen: Regulation and legislation as tools in the battle against obesity

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