Although health is core business for hospitals, junk food and soft drinks have long dominated kiosks and vending machines that line hospital foyers and corridors.
But now Queensland is leading the way with a long overdue move to ban these items, which are driving contributors to obesity, poor health and chronic disease.
The ban is motivated by a call to reduce junk food advertising and availability to children. But other hospital goers will also benefit from moves to promote healthy food.
Changing food environments
Making these changes is not easy. The food and drink industry, which has long enjoyed binding contracts with hospitals, has complained that it was not consulted in the decision.
Australian Beverages Council spokesperson, Geoff Parker, called the move “an insult to people’s intelligence,” arguing that “People don’t want governments snooping around in vending machines or hospital cafeterias.”
But the world’s leading obesity researchers say making unhealthy foods less available is needed to address the global health crisis. The ubiquity of food that is energy dense and nutritionally poor is a clear contributor to its overconsumption.
The executive summary of The Lancet’s 2015 obesity series argues that “Today’s food environments exploit people’s biological, psychological, social, and economic vulnerabilities, making it easier for them to eat unhealthy foods.
“This reinforces preferences and demands for foods of poor nutritional quality, furthering the unhealthy food environments.
“Regulatory actions from governments and increased efforts from industry and civil society will be necessary to break these vicious cycles.”
Targeting individual behaviours does not work, the researchers contend. They say a broad environmental focus on ‘denormalising’ unhealthy food consumption is needed – much like campaigns to reduce smoking.
That means changing social norms by creating an environment in which consuming unhealthy food and drinks becomes less attractive, less conventional and less accessible.
Does it work?
When trialled, healthier vending machine food and drink options have produced successful outcomes in schools, workplaces, hospitals and health services.
Evaluations of these initiatives not only reported that people bought healthier food items, but also that sales increased.
Behavioural economics tells us that people don’t necessarily make decisions based on careful weighing of risks and benefits. Behaviours are influenced by emotions, identity and environment – including the options available to us.
Based on this, contemporary research is considering how to ‘nudge’ people towards healthier behaviours and improve population health. When it comes to food, a grouped analysis of 42 trials in developed countries found that, on average, nudging strategies produced a 15.3% increase in healthier choices.
Healthier options in hospital vending machines and kiosks may not benefit the processed food and sugary drink industry, but people’s health and wellbeing could surely profit.