Executive Health: The plain truth about packaging

Imagine time in the not too distant future. Chocolate bars are sold in uniform plain packaging, stored behind grey screen and available only upon request by those aged over 18.
It seems like pretty extreme scenario. But it’s exactly what the New Zealand Government is looking to do for all tobacco products. In July it was made compulsory to store these items out of sight, and the Government is currently undertaking public consultation in relation to the proposal for tobacco products to be sold in uniform plain packaging, as proposed in Australia.
In both countries, tobacco companies are campaigning against the changes. Among other arguments, British American Tobacco Australia has suggested ‘plain packaging’ legislation will open the floodgates for “costly and intrusive” legislation on other products such as fast food and alcohol.
Though plain packaging of junk food might seem far-fetched, methods used to ward us off tobacco, such as label warnings and point-of-sale restrictions, are already being used around the world for certain foods.
In New York, Mayor Michael Bloomberg has proposed to ban the sale of any non-diet soft drinks larger than 500ml within the city limits (supermarkets/dairies being exempt).
However, restricting freedom of choice is contentious issue. The consensus from those opposed to the New York proposal seems to be – we’re all adults, we know the risks, let us make our own decisions.
An alternative approach is to enforce informed choice.
In 2008, New York became the first US city to require chain restaurants to display the calorie count of menu items. Federal law will come into effect later this year making it compulsory in all US chain restaurants with 20 or more outlets. In Australia, Victoria and New South Wales implemented similar mandate in 2011, and Ireland has recently put voluntary code in place.
Back in New Zealand, some health researchers are calling for consumers to be given more digestible information than currently provided by the mandatory back-of-packet nutritional information panel. In the UK many food manufacturers print traffic light colour-coding on the front of food packets. This tells you at glance if the food has high (red), medium (orange) or low (green) amounts of fat, saturated fat, sugars and salt, and is one of the options being debated here.
Opponents argue the system is too simplistic, as it doesn’t give complete picture of the food’s nutritional value. For example, cheddar cheese gets red light for fat. However, cheese is also good source of calcium. Critics have also pointed out that there’s no definitive evidence that calorie display actually changes consumer behaviour.
These issues are food for thought if you’re thinking about how to help your employees make healthier choices. I’d suggest it’s all about encouragement, information and support. M

Small steps
Food friendly Morning and afternoon teas can be an obstacle to anyone trying to manage their health. Encourage healthier choices by providing fruit platters or low-fat options, and ordering bite-size portions.

Lead me not into temptation Common advice for healthy eating is to simply not have junk food in the house. When Southern Cross Health Society moved offices in 2011, our employees encouraged us to replace our vending machines with twice-weekly fresh fruit delivery.

Bring in the experts Nutrition seminars are great way to empower people to make healthier choices. After all, there’s no point in knowing how many calories are in burger if you have no benchmark as to what’s an acceptable portion size or daily calorie intake.

Take the stairs It never ceases to amaze me how many people take the lift for single floor. The stairs is much healthier option.

Peter Tynan is chief executive of Southern Cross Health Society.

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