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The Health Wrap: the right to healthy food; new and old stories; where we live

This fortnight’s Health Wrap is compiled by Frances Gilham, Digital Communications Manager at the Sax Institute. Enjoy the wrap and don’t forget to tweet us @SaxInstitute if you have any ideas you’d like to share.

The right to healthy food

Should we implement a sugar tax in Australia?

Calls for such a policy are ramping up, with major health and research bodies adding their voices to the debate over the past fortnight.

The Age reported that the Australian Medical Association (AMA) and the Committee of Presidents of Medical Colleges (CPMC) have each released policies on obesity, which included calls for a sugar levy.

Croakey covered the summit where the CPMC reached their obesity action consensus, saying:

“Let’s hope Australia’s response to this pressing public health issue doesn’t mirror The Hollowmen, where an initial six-point plan was downgraded to a two-point plan (an awareness campaign and a voluntary code of conduct) following industry opposition and pressure.”

Action is increasing in the US, with Business Insider describing how a number of US cities have recently passed measures to tax sugary drinks, with the latest including San Francisco, Boulder and Chicago.

And now the Grattan Institute has joined the push, publishing a report this week that proposed a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages to recoup some of the third-party costs of obesity and reduce obesity rates, focusing on soft drinks, flavoured mineral waters, fruit drinks, energy drinks, flavoured waters and iced teas.

Grattan Institute Director Stephen Duckett explained their proposal in an article for The Conversation, saying:

“A tax on sugary drinks is a public health reform whose time has come.”

The AFR reported on the response from key politicians, whose views ranged from Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce calling the proposal “bonkers mad”, to Health Minister Sussan Ley, who said she did not support a sugar tax at this time but would continue to consider the evidence, to Senator Richard Di Natale who said the Greens would introduce a private members’ bill to implement the tax if the government didn’t act.

And The Guardian reported on Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce’s response that people should take personal responsibility for their health rather than rely on government interventions, saying Australia has an obesity problem because “people are sitting on their backside too much and eating too much food”.

At the same time, the University of Sydney is considering a total ban on sugary drinks on its campus, citing the importance of showing leadership on public health issues, the SMH reported. The proposal has been soundly criticised by the Australian Beverages Council, Coca Cola Amatil and the Institute of Public Affairs, the article said.

A related aspect of the obesity debate is the equally pressing notion of food insecurity in remote and rural Australia, which has been in the spotlight following a report from the National Rural Health AllianceFiona Brooke, who led the report’s compilation as Senior Policy Advisor for the NRHA, outlined the findings for Croakey.

Meanwhile the Scottish Government has announced it is considering enshrining a right to access to food in Scots Law, BBC reported.

In other public health news, a huge study has found the number of people with high blood pressure has almost doubled in 40 years to over 1.1 billion worldwide, with scientists saying it has dropped sharply in wealthy countries – possibly due to healthier diets and lifestyles – but risen in poorer ones.

And in also dramatic, but more positive news, another large study has found a significant decline in dementia levels, among older adults in the US, Stat News reported.

New and old stories

A major report from the Productivity Commission, Overcoming Indigenous Disadvantage, recently found further declines in Indigenous wellbeing and mental health, and an increase in incarceration rates.

The report pointed to a failure of policy and programs, according to the ABC. But Indigenous leaders said evidence shows Indigenous programs to address disadvantage can work — they just needed to be properly evaluated to prove their worth.

The ABC’s recently appointed Indigenous affairs editor Stan Grant urged a rethink of what it means to be Indigenous in modern Australia, saying that as well as disadvantage and suffering, there is a strongly emerging “Indigenous middle class”. He explores the social, political and cultural implications of that in depth in the latest Quarterly Essay, and quotes academic and broadcaster Larissa Behrendt on some of the hard questions:

‘“How does a community that has partly been defined by its exclusion, disadvantage and poverty redefine itself? How does it increase its participation in the mainstream and not be assimilated?” Behrendt ultimately argues that a person’s cultural identity should not be tied to poverty: “You are not more Aboriginal if you grew up struggling.”’

The theme of empowerment ran through discussions at the recent Lowitja Institute Conference, covered by Croakey, which, in the (tweeted) words of presenter Dr Chelsea Bond, revolved around self-determination and sovereignty, as opposed to ‘closing the gap’.

Discussions covered how Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders have been calling for self-determination and justice since colonisation, and how after decades of vital inquiries and recommendations for urgent change, it was time for substantive, structural reform that changes Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ lives on the ground.

Other topics at the conference, covered by Croakey, included research ethics, leading to two articles by Bond, one on the NHMRC’s capacity to resource Indigenous-led research and her letter to her ‘former self’ with insights on how she learnt not only to become an ethical researcher, but also an ethical Indigenous researcher.

Croakey also published a number of posts within their #JustJustice series this week (in the lead up to the launch this Sunday of a series e-book) , including an exploration of suggestions for a fairer justice system, a call for governments to address the underlying issues contributing to over-incarceration, and an interview with Phyllis Simmons, who for many years was an Aboriginal visitor at the Roebourne Regional Prison in Western Australia.

Meanwhile, new research reported in the MJA has found a negative trend in cancer incidence for Indigenous people in the Northern Territory, with increasing rates of formerly lower incidence cancers, such as bowel and breast cancer, without a concomitant reduction in the incidence of higher incidence cancers (several of which are smoking-related), except for cervical cancer. The researchers attributed their findings to the shift from traditional lifestyles of Indigenous people, which occurred later in the NT than in most of the rest of Australia.

Where we live

Also at the Lowitja Conference was a presentation on the importance of the natural environment, with Croakey reporting on how the Indigenous Sámi peoples of Norway are returning to cultural practices on country, as part of moves to tackle mental health and substance abuse issues.

The Sydney Morning Herald reported on huge health gaps between Sydney’s suburbs, with obesity rising the further west you go, and more affluent postcode around Sydney Harbour and coastline having some of the state’s highest rates of risky drinking, according to Australia’s Health Tracker, an  interactive map released by the Australian Health Policy Collaboration.

The environment can have a brutal impact on our health, demonstrated starkly this week by the “thunderstorm asthma” event in Melbourne which resulted in four deaths and a huge spike in calls to ambulance services and visits to emergency departments, reported here by The Guardian. The Victorian government has announced a state-wide inquiry into the emergency response to the event, The Age reported.

And recent hazard reduction fires in Sydney are also thought to have resulted in 14 early deaths, according to MJA research covered by the Sydney Morning Herald.

The relationship between health and severe weather events has prompted doctors Dr Marianne Cannon and Dr Joseph Ting to write a comment piece in The Sydney Morning Herald about why doctors are concerned about the likely health effects of climate change — citing events like the above. They write:

“It is unclear whether even our systems are robust enough to manage as these extreme weather events become more intense and occur more often.”

Their article came as BBC reported that 2016 is ‘very likely’ to be the world’s warmest year, saying that because of climate change, the occurrence and impact of extreme events has risen.

And in a “bumper ‘call to action’ post” Croakey featured three articles on the issues for global warming action following the election of United States President-elect Donald Trump.

Meanwhile, the WHO has announced it is no longer considering Zika virus an international medical emergency, and that they will be shifting to a more long-term approach against the infection.

A post on Croakey explores the health considerations of hydraulic fracturing of onshore unconventional gas reservoirs (fracking).

Health policy news

The Harvard School of Public Health published a perspective on what public health might look like under new US President Trump, including what might happen to the Affordable Care Act (100% repeal is unlikely) and the outlook for women’s health services (not good).

And Croakey republished a post by from Public Health Association of Australia CEO Michael Moore that outlined how public health leaders at the 9th European Public Health Conference responded to the news of Trump’s victory.

Closer to home there has been some news around affordable healthcare, following figures published by the Australian Department of Health showing a small drop in the bulk-billing rate for GP services in the September quarter, according to medical news website 6minutes (registration required).

In an article for The Guardian, the AMA said this showed that GPs could no longer afford to absorb costs and pressures and had begun charging patients more for services.

The Health Care Homes proposal has been welcomed as a policy idea that could improve healthcare for those with complex healthcare conditions needing multidisciplinary care, and the Consumers Health Forum of Australia published a great post detailing why the design of this policy is of utmost importance.

And the release of the strategy for Australia’s Medical Research Future Fund (MRFF) was welcomed by key opinion leaders, including the Sax Institute‘s Professor Sally Redman, The Australian reported.

Croakey also covered the news, providing a post explaining the strategy written by the Sax Institute’s Megan Howe, and an article considering why it is important to focus on investment in health services research.

Other news from Croakey you may have missed

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