Cancer Council Australia

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Obesity control in Australia: defusing a cancer time bomb

With obesity rates at an all-time high, Australia faces a surge in obesity-related cancers unless strong policy measures are taken as soon as possible.

Governments have committed to social marketing, population monitoring and community-based programs to tackle obesity, yet these will fall well short of their potential to cut Australia’s expected surge in obesity-related cancers, unless they form part of a comprehensive strategy that also: addresses food marketing, particularly protecting children from exposure to junk food ads; promotes physical activity, through community programs integrated with social marketing; and encourages healthy eating through better targeted programs and social marketing.

Australia’s elevated obesity rates are a cancer time bomb. Obese Australians are 23% more likely to die from cancer (excluding lung and upper aero-digestive tract cancers) than people in a healthy weight range, while being overweight increases the risk by 8%.1

Unless rates of obesity/overweight are reduced, common cancers such as bowel cancer (9% attributed to obesity/overweight) and breast cancer (17%) 2 are set to surge, while rarer forms such as endometrial cancer (49%), oesophageal cancer (35%) and kidney cancer (24%) may become common,2 given that:

  • two in three Australian adults 3 and one in four Australian children 4 are now overweight or obese with prevalence even higher among disadvantaged groups;3
  • Australia’s adult obesity rate is the fifth highest amongst OECD countries;5 in 2008, obesity alone was estimated to afflict 3.8 million Australians and to cost Australia $58bn, including $8.3bn in financial costs;6 and
  • based on past trends, and without effective interventions in place, 6.9 million Australians are likely to be obese by 2025.6

Cancer Council Australia therefore calls on the next Australian government to implement a comprehensive obesity strategy as recommended by the National Preventative Health Taskforce,7 built on:

  • protecting children from exposure to junk food advertising which evidence indicates is by far the most cost-effective intervention for addressing obesity in adolescents; 89
  • expanding on the Australian Government’s May 2010 response to the taskforce recommendations 10 by establishing a National Framework for Active Living to encourage increased physical activity; and
  • a National Food and Nutrition Framework for the Australian food supply which includes a robust strategy to help consumers make healthier food choices, such as implementing a front-of-pack nutrition labelling scheme using traffic light colours, on processed foods.

Protecting children from exposure to junk food advertising

The World Health Organisation has recognised the restriction of junk food advertising targeting children as an important area for action in the prevention of obesity. Reviews have confirmed that food promotion clearly influences children’s food preferences, purchases and consumption, as well as their dietary habits and health status.10 There is also evidence of a significant correlation between junk food advertising and childhood obesity.12

A comprehensive study by the Victorian Government showed that precluding advertising of foods and beverages high in sugar and fat, from 7-8am and 3-9pm Monday to Friday and 6am to 1pm Saturday and Sunday, was by far the most cost-effective of 13 interventions assessed for reducing adolescent and childhood obesity.9

Advertising restrictions would also help to maximise returns on government investment in social marketing campaigns and programs to encourage healthy eating by ensuring they do not have to compete with far more powerful and extensive advertising promoting unhealthy food choices.

A National Food and Nutrition Framework

Poor nutrition is a major contributor to overweight/obesity and associated increases in chronic disease levels in Australia.13 Implementing a National Food and Nutrition Framework, as recommended by the National Preventative Health Taskforce, would facilitate improved nutrition by addressing:

  • price, choice and access to food;
  • healthier eating patterns, including among populations at particular risk;
  • food safety; and
  • issues related to food production and agricultural policy that ensure a safe and environmentally sustainable food chain and food supply.

Encouraging good nutrition will only work if individuals have access to and can identify healthier food choices, so key Framework components must include:

  • Front-of-pack nutrition labelling on processed foods that provides at a glance interpretation of nutrient information, as recommended by the Taskforce. An effective scheme can both assist consumers to make healthier food choices  and provide an incentive to industry to increase their range of healthier products through innovation and product reformulation.  Cancer Council recommends the introduction of one consistent labelling format using traffic light symbols.
  • Enhanced planning for current and future social marketing campaigns to encourage healthier diets, to improve integration with other related initiatives.

A National Framework for Active Living

Physical inactivity is a major contributor to Australia’s escalating rates of obesity and overweight and is also an independent risk factor for cancer.  In 2007-08, 73% of Australians were sedentary or had low levels of exercise.3

Complex environmental and lifestyle factors contribute to low levels of physical activity and there is increasing evidence that the built environment influences obesity rates.1516

Establishing a National Framework for Active Living as recommended by the Taskforce will drive a co-ordinated approach to increasing physical activity levels by improving the built environment, transport and participation in sport and active recreation.

Current COAG-agreed initiatives to promote increased physical activity must be enhanced by:

  • Reorienting transport policy to prioritise walking, cycling and public transport;
  • Building and retrofitting neighbourhoods to provide infrastructure and services for recreational physical activity and to encourage walking or cycling to work, shops, public transport etc, instead of focussing on cars;
  • Developing national guidelines for health planning and mandating physical activity/health impact assessments on all planning and policy decisions;
  • Ensuring usable accessible public open space is available to cater for different target groups to encourage walking and recreational activity;
  • Enhancing planning for current and future social marketing campaigns to encourage increased physical activity, by improving integration with other related initiatives.

A genuinely comprehensive approach

Commonwealth funds have been allocated for social marketing to address obesity in the forward estimates and there are plans to establish a preventative health agency for their implementation.

While Cancer Council Australia welcomes this future commitment, the investment will only achieve optimal returns in cancer outcomes if media campaigns are strategically conducted according to best practice and integrated with the policy measures we recommend here.

Obesity, and the future cancer surge it is expected to impose, is a public health crisis in Australia and requires a coordinated, multifaceted government response.



1) Parr CL, Batty GD, Lam TH, Barzi F, Fang X, et al. Body-mass index and cancer mortality in the Asia-Pacific Cohort Studies Collaboration: pooled analyses of 424 519 participants. Lancet Oncol 2010 Jun 29

2) World Cancer Research Fund /American Institute for Cancer Research. Policy and Action for Cancer Prevention. Food, Nutrition, and Physical Activity: a Global Perspective. Washington DC: AICR, 2009

3) Australian Bureau of Statistics. National Health Survey 2007-08: summary of results

4) 2007 Australian National Children’s Nutrition and Physical Activity Survey.  Main Findings.  CSIRO. October 2008.

5) OECD 2007. Health at a Glance 2007 – OECD Indicators.,3343,en_2649_33929_16502667_1_1_1_37407,00.html

6) Access Economics Pty Ltd. The growing cost of obesity in 2008: three years on.  August 2008

7) National Preventative Health Taskforce 30 June 2009. Australia: the healthiest country by 2020. National Preventative Health Strategy – the roadmap for action.  Commonwealth of Australia 2009

8) Victorian Department of Human Services, Assessing cost-effectiveness of obesity interventions in children and adolescents, 2006

9) Cairns, G, Angus K, Hastings G 2009. The extent, nature and effects of food promotion to children: a review of the evidence to December 2008.  WHO 2009

10) Australian Government, Taking preventative action, A response to Australia: the healthiest country by 2020: the report of the National Preventative Health Taskforce,

11) World Health Organization.  Diet, nutrition and the prevention of chronic diseases. Geneva, WHO. 2003

12) Veerman JL, Van Beeck EF, Barendregt JJ, Mackenbach JP. By how much would limiting TV food advertising reduce childhood obesity? Eur J Public Health. 2009..

13) Swinburn BA, Caterson I, Seidell JC, James WP. Diet, nutrition and the prevention of excess weight gain and obesity. Public Health Nutr 2004; 7(1A):123-146.

14) Cowburn G, Stockley L. Consumer understanding and use of nutrition labelling: a systematic review. Public Health Nutr 2005;8:21-8

15) National Preventative Health Taskforce 30 June 2009. Australia: the healthiest country by 2020. National Preventative Health Strategy – the roadmap for action.  Commonwealth of Australia 2009

16) UK Government Office for Science. Foresight: Tackling Obesities: Future Choices.  Project Report. October 2007.


This page was last updated on: Thursday, March 10, 2016

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