In the run up to the Federal budget on 29 March and an election by 21 May, this article continues a Croakey series asking: what health issues should be elevated in national debate?
Previous articles called for efforts to address racism and inequality, for the appointment of a health ‘czar’ to drive health reform across portfolios and jurisdictions, and for a renewed commitment to Medicare and universal healthcare, including addressing out-of-pocket costs, as well as health workforce planning.
The series has also profiled an urgent need for affordable housing, to improve healthcare for people with mental illness, and to extend specialist telehealth items by phone as a permanent feature of the healthcare system.
Below is an overview of key recommendations from the Centre for Air pollution, energy and health Research (CAR) and the Obesity Policy Coalition.
Why we need action on air pollution now
Centre for Air pollution, energy and health Research (CAR)
Knowledge and Translation Broker Ana Porta Cubas
As a health issue, air pollution has typically received little attention. It could be because by world standards Australia’s air quality is considered ‘good’. But the latest scientific evidence shows there is no safe level of air pollution—all pollution matters.
Unbeknown to most, the heath impacts of air pollution in Australia are significant. Our research has found that long-term exposure to air pollution in Australia leads to over 2,500 deaths and costs Australians $6.2 billion every year. Our research has also shown that substantial health benefits are achievable even with modest decreases in air pollution.
In the lead-up to the federal election in 2022, we have identified six air quality policy priorities for the government to pursue.
Our priorities are underpinned by our commitment to minimise the negative health impacts of air pollution and energy sources on Australians, and to support the development of evidence-based policies and practices to protect the health of Australians.
Action in these 6 areas is needed now:
- Alignment of national air quality standards with 2021 WHO air quality guidelines, underpinned by a continuous emissions reduction framework.
- Strong enforcement and compliance mechanisms for exceedances of both ambient and point source pollution, supported by an enhanced air quality monitoring network.
- Strong national action to reduce the health burden of wood heaters through the establishment of a national fund to support a wood heater replacement scheme.
- Introduction of subsidy schemes to support vulnerable populations to access high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters.
- Increased investment in, and adoption of, policies that incentivise the uptake of electric vehicles (EVs) and EV-related infrastructure.
- Accelerated reduction of emissions from the combustion of fossil fuels through increased investment in, and adoption of, policies that incentivise the uptake of renewable, low-emitting sources of energy
Calling for a health levy on sugary drinks
Obesity Policy Coalition
Executive Manager Jane Martin
As we emerge from the devastating impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, we must do so with a renewed focus on the importance of prevention to the health and wellbeing of Australians, and to our economy.
Urgent action must be taken to reduce the number of Australians who are above a healthy weight: two-thirds (67.40%) of adults and around one-quarter (24.9%) of children.
From a health perspective, this means a large proportion of the population is at heightened risk of non-communicable diseases and conditions including cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes and some cancers. After tobacco use, the risk factors of overweight and obesity (8.4%) and poor diet (5.4%) are the highest contributors to Australia’s burden of disease.
From an economic perspective, high rates of obesity and associated chronic disease cost governments, businesses and individuals, a significant amount. A 2021 study by World Obesity and RTI International found the economic impact of obesity in Australia in 2019 to be $24 billion USD, or 1.7% of GDP, projected to reach $103 billion USD or 2.5% of GDP by 2060 if action is not taken.
Our government must invest in and drive change. We look to the newly released National Obesity Strategy – a long-awaited and critical roadmap to guide action at all levels of government to prevent, manage and treat obesity.
The National Obesity Strategy includes key areas of change to improve the food and physical environment, the systems change we know is needed to support Australians to have a healthy future. The federal budget must reflect this priority and include a significant investment to enable implementation of key policies set out in the National Obesity Strategy, without delay.
Key reforms include protecting children from unhealthy food marketing, improving food labelling by making the Health Star Rating System mandatory and informing consumers about the harmful sugars in packaged foods, introducing regulation to improve the composition, labelling and promotion of commercial infant and toddler foods, alongside wider reforms that extend beyond the health system to address social determinants of health.
As part of this budget, we ask the Australian Government to introduce a health levy on sugary drinks to increase the retail price by at least 20 percent. Sugary drinks are a key source of harmful sugars in Australians’ diets, and a health levy on these drinks is an effective tool to drive sugary drink companies to reduce the harmful sugars in their drinks and to reduce the amount of harmful sugars consumed.
A health levy on sugary drinks has been implemented in more than 50 countries and, in Australia, is widely supported by more than 20 key health and consumer groups.
Health levies can also raise significant revenue for governments and result in considerable cost savings. Recent modelling by the Australian Medical Association found expected annual government revenue of $749 to $814 million from its proposed tax on sugar-sweetened beverages, and a 2018 analysis by Deakin University identified that a health levy on sugary drinks would cost very little (~$11.8m) to implement, while delivering $1.7bn in total healthcare cost offsets.
The upcoming budget provides an opportunity to demonstrate a strong commitment to, and investment in, public health and obesity prevention. Let’s take this opportunity to invest in the future health and wellbeing of all Australians.
For further information about why Australia should implement a health levy on sugary drinks, and the experience of other countries, please see the Obesity Evidence Hub – www.obesityevidencehub.org.au
Our first article in this series featured the priorities of the Australian Healthcare and Hospitals Association, Consumers Health Forum of Australia, LGBTIQ+ Health Australia, National Rural Health Alliance, Public Health Association of Australia, and health policy analyst Charles Maskell-Knight.
Our second article in this series featured the priorities of the National Health Leadership Forum, Australian College of Nursing, and Association of Australian Medical Research Institutes.
Our third article in the series featured priorities from the Australian Physiotherapy Association, the Australasian College for Emergency Medicine, and Philanthropy Australia.
Our fourth article in the series featured priorities from the Change the Record coalition, Mitchell Institute at Victoria University and the Royal Australasian College of Physicians.
- See Croakey’s archive of stories on the 2022 Federal election
- See Croakey’s archive of stories on the 2022-2023 Federal budget.