Health Tracker provides a path to better lives

A new report released on Thursday, August 12, shows just how much we, as consumers, can enhance our health by improving our diet and physical exercise.

Getting Australia’s Health on Track provides an update on the simple but important ways we can change our lives and reduce by one third the avoidable diseases of modern life.

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The challenges of improving diet and exercise may seem daunting to many people. The encouraging feature of this report however is that modest population-wide changes can bring significant health benefits. What is needed however is stronger government support and leadership to propel those population-wide changes — such as reducing sugary drinks — changes that are already happening in 40 nations around the world

The report has been produced by Victoria University’s Mitchell Institute. Its recommendations have been agreed by a national collaboration of Australia’s leading experts in chronic disease prevention, the Australian Health Policy Collaboration, as the initiatives Australia needs to reduce preventable chronic disease in our population.

One in two Australians have chronic disease and one in three live with two or more chronic diseases.  These represent a huge burden on people’s lives, not to mention the nation’s economy.

Yet as Getting Australia’s Health on Track reports, one third of the burden of chronic diseases could be prevented by reducing modifiable risk factors such as overweight and obesity, dietary risk, physical inactivity, tobacco use and high blood pressure.

As Australia demonstrated so successfully in recent decades, it is possible to reduce ingrained unhealthy habits like smoking with comprehensive education campaigns backed by tax measures with the resultant decline in smoking-related illness bearing huge benefits to public health.

Unfortunately, recent federal and state governments have resisted adopting such preventive strategies to curb unhealthy consumption and promote healthier lifestyle. Despite the overwhelming evidence of the benefits of preventive health policies, a mere 1.34 per cent of the national health expenditure is devoted to prevention.

The report highlights eight targets to aspire to by 2025. Recent experience may suggest they are ambitious, yet the targets are by no means radical, and are achievable with the right community-wide leadership and support.

The targets are:

  • Halt the rise in obesity
  • Reduce population-wide salt intake by 30 per cent
  • 20 per cent reduction in the harmful use of alcohol
  • Reduce smoking to 5 per cent of the population
  • 10 per cent reduction in physical inactivity
  • Halve the employment gap for people with mental illness
  • 25 per cent reduction in high blood pressure
  • Reduce the premature mortality rate to 166 per 100,000 people.

We agree with the report that the Australian Government’s commitment to implementation of a National Preventive Health Strategy in 2021-22 is an initial step on a long-overdue path to action on health improvement and prevention at the federal level.

A companion report, Australia’s Health Tracker by Socioeconomic Status, shows in great detail the disturbingly close link between chronic illness in people and the low socioeconomic status.  The report finds that ten million, that is 10,000,000, Australians are at much greater risk of poor health due to living in lower and lowest socioeconomic communities.

People in low socioeconomic communities have higher rates of illness, as well as higher risk of early deaths than those in higher socioeconomic communities and groups. What should be of deep concern in a country boasting equality is that inequalities in health by socioeconomic status are widening in Australia, with premature mortality rates up to twice as high among the most socioeconomically disadvantaged individuals and communities compared to the most advantaged population.

Getting Australia’s Health on Track states that strategies to reduce risk factors for poor health and preventable chronic disease need to reach, engage and be effective in supporting disadvantaged population groups and communities to have lower rates of preventable illness and disease.

It lists 11 priority policy actions for Australia:

  1. introduce a 20% health levy on sugar-sweetened beverages
  2. protect children and young people from unhealthy food and beverage marketing through comprehensive and consistent regulation
  3. reduce salt content in processed foods and promote potassium as a sodium substitute
  4. implement consistent volumetric tax on all alcohol products and increase the current taxation rate
  5. restrict late supply and concentrated supply of alcohol by preventing alcohol sales after 3am and restrict alcohol delivery between 10am and 10pm
  6. invest in development and evaluation of evidence-based school-based alcohol prevention programs
  7. re-invest in mass media information and expand smoking cessation supports to maintain and further reduce smoking rates, particularly among communities with continuing high rates of smoking
  8. implement a national physical activity plan, invest in active travel and walking infrastructure for all and enhance access for all through a voucher scheme
  9. include physical health checks as core components of all mental health care plans
  10. establish sustainable vocational individual placement and support programs nationally for people with moderate and severe persistent mental illness
  11. establish systematic screening for biomedical risk factors

That’s a straightforward plan. If it’s repeated often enough perhaps our leaders will act.

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About the author

Leanne Wells

Leanne Wells

Leanne was Chief Executive of the Consumers Health Forum of Australia from 2014 until August 2022