Radio National’s Background Briefing this Sunday is about the struggle of residents of a western suburb in Adelaide who are trying to stop a McDonalds restaurant being built within 200 metres of a primary school.
We spoke to Professor of Public Health John Coveney about this move, its chances of success and its implications.
Could you provide some background on what are the residents of Charles Sturt Council are doing? What are they trying to achieve?
My understanding is that they’re opposed to a fast-food restaurant being developed in the area. Their reason is that it’s too close to a school – I think it’s a primary school that they’re trying to protect. They’re opposed to it because they believe the fast-food restaurant will influence the children’s eating habits.
Is there any evidence that underpins their move? Are there strong links between child obesity and the proximity of fast-food outlets, for instance?
There’s a study from California showing that there’s a relationship between schools that are quite close to fast-food outlets and the rates of obesity in those schools. So there’s some tentative evidence that suggests being close to a fast-food restaurant may, in fact, have an influence on whether or not the children have higher rates of overweight or obesity.
How close remains a matter of debate because the authors go on to say that when the distance is greater (we’re talking in miles here) – when the distance is greater than between a quarter of a mile or half a mile – there’s actually no discernible effect.
But when fast-food outlets are within viewing distance of schools, they were able to detect a significant effect.
Presumably there’d be an effect from students being constantly, as you said, visually exposed to the fast-food outlet. But when they exit or enter school, proximity also provides the opportunity for them to enter the fast-food outlet.
That would be subjective interpretation of the effect of proximity. Basically, when children and their parents are leaving school and there’s visible a fast-food outlet, it becomes easier for the children to use “pester-power” with their parents. And children who have their own discretionary funds might go and buy foods from a fast-food outlet on their own accord.
What would you say, in your personal opinion, are the chances of success in stopping the establishment of this fast-food outlet?
Well I think they’re good. Now that we have a public health act (SA Public Health Act 2011), it allows us to use what’s called the “precautionary principle.” That is, even though we don’t have all of the evidence, when there’s a suggestion that a particular course of action could be injurious to health, we should question whether we should pursue that activity.
I think the new South Australian public health act might be brought into play in this situation. The new South Australian public health act not only about making sure that our water is clean and our air is safe and the conditions of our homes are liveable, it’s also about health promotion. And I think health promotion activity is what we’re talking about in this case.
The new South Australian public health act could actually be used in as a way of addressing this particular problem.
Has anybody successfully used a similar act or any urban planning laws for public health measures in this kind of circumstance in Australia?
The new South Australian public health act is only a few months old, so I don’t think so. In the past, I don’t think councils had the necessary regulations to allow them to stop something like this happening. If there has been a withdrawal of application, it’s usually been because of local pressure from residents because council hasn’t had the necessary regulations to do that.
But now they do have that power, under the new South Australian public health act, so I think this is probably a pretty good test case.
What do you think that success in this case would mean for public health advocacy? In particular, for measures against non-communicable diseases in Australia?
I think it’ll be terrific because it would demonstrate that concerns parents based on evidence – and their concerns are based on evidence such as the study from the University of California – can be taken forward. They can be taken seriously and the new South Australian public health act can be used to support their case.
I think that’s also a terrific move toward stopping the rise of non-communicable diseases.