Plain packaging for fast food? The global obesity crisis

Plain packets for fast food

What if we decided that fast food should be plain packaged with graphic health warnings like cigarette package now is  in Australia? A Fast Food Plain Packaging Act?

Some of the reasons we now force the plain packaging of cigarettes:

  • to make them less attractive to  adults and children
  • to ensure that advertising is not misleading and that there is no confusion about the health implications for consumers
  • to provide health warning on the packaging
  • to amplify the health warnings

Exactly the same messages could be echoed for fast food. I am thinking of especially the large companies who mass produce fast foods…. you know who they are…. they are dominated by bright attractive colours in their ‘restaurants’, and on their packaging…they include ‘nutritional facts’ on their labels (that you need a magnifying glass to read). They have cheap options to lure the cash poor….and they have meal deals and family meal deals which include fizzy sugary drinks to the mostly fried mix!

It is not rocket science   – this stuff…hard to refer to it as food! This stuff is really, really bad for people to consume. It directly causes BAD health.  There is a clear and obvious cause and effect….. if you eat a lot of fast food + sugary drinks you will get fat, have cardiac disease, diabetes, diminished mental health… the list goes on…. other blog posts of mine have discussed food security and the excess of poor quality food…

Fast food is addictive – our brains crave the saturated and transfats, and the more we have…the more we crave. It is fact.

Can we provide conditions that change the environment, help our brains and the brains of our children and young people to be less attracted to fast food? Would plain packaging and plain signage restrictions make a difference? I.m not sure that the evidence is out there to say it would help…. but in terms of health, I can’t see that it would do any harm to try!

Here is some more food for thought … a compilation of conversations that made me think more about this issue over the last few days…

fat map…

Could this map explain in part world obesity….The global obesity crisis. A few big companies that produce of lot of processed foods high in fats and sugars? What would happen if we stopped buying this stuff? Would it matter to health? and how would that shape society? What items should/could be plain packaged? Are there incentives that could be in place to promote fun and enticing packaging of low processed foods?


I watched  ABC TV show  Four Corners  Supersizing India’s kids  the other night…. As a health professional, I found it profoundly disturbing on so many levels…. watch for yourself! Kid’s obese… vulnerable…. surgery (and the health industry) exploiting them with expensive and invasive interventions (gastric bands and worse), without using other less invasive interventions first. Kid’s undergoing major gastric surgery… that can only end badly. Where are the nurses??? Why are they not taking some leadership in promoting health, reducing poor health….. ????  Why are they not advocating for safe health promotion and interventions for these kids…. ??? (AND – a big thumbs down to the surgeon who slapped the abdomen of a child while he was under anesthetic…. BIG thumbs down. Where was the nurse then????)

closer to home…

Kind of in my back yard…. a few blocks from where I live, an 18 year old young woman died from obesity in the last year. Devastating… so sad. So preventable… but help was needed. A few blocks from were I live major fast food ‘restaurants’ thrive… cars cue to ‘drive through’… so sad. The smell of the oils bubbling away saturate the air to those who walk by… enticing  the brains of young people with their neurochemical lures… Here in rural Australia, where we grow fresh food, produce it for the nation and the world, where idyllically healthy living can be had in bucket loads…. we have our own fast food crisis. Where are the nurses? …advocating for health?

it all makes me think….

What can be done… to reduce the fast food led health demise in my town, in my country… in my world?

Perhaps every little bit might help and is worth trying…. why not plain packaging for fast food ? I am a nurse – it is in my professional DNA to advocate for health, especially for vulnerable people  such as kids and young people, who sometimes can’t yet do that for themselves. I live in rural Australia…. it sharpens my mind to the needs of rural young people…. and to also advocate for their health.

We need fitter bodies and sharper minds in rural communities – we need less enticement to consume fast food which reduces physical and mental health. I say –  Keep the packaging plain. Add health warnings to the packages, and include photos of horrendous consequences of prolonged consumption. Just like we do for cigarettes – see what happens…

Too controversial? or, on the money? Debate welcome!




  1. Paul

    The line between advocate and tyrant is so thin these days. Here you are advocating that the force of law be used against others to restrict their freedoms for the sake of their health. Perhaps you should do a little more thinking and explain why the value of health should triumph the value of freedom. Perhaps you might like to explain why extending life is a good thing in itself? Why must freedom be sacrificed to health?

    Perhaps you might also explain why you think the fundamental value of democracy – freedom – ought to be substituted for health.

    • Rhonda Wilson MHN

      Hi Paul
      Thanks for your comment. It is a tough topic… I am glad to see a conversation develop – I think new thinking needs to rise up to address this important issue. Obesity is a burden on international health budgets – the example in my Blog of the crisis in India is an example of a public health budget that can’t hope to fund the lifestyle health problems that are starting to develop in that country. We humans are held to ransom by our neurological systems sometimes too – it can be hard to stop desiring ‘bad’ food when we get in a cycle of ‘liking it’ … so our freedoms are undermined by our physiology sometimes too. Perhaps another good conversation is about responsibilities… we might have the right or freedom to eat what we please, as much as we please…. but we also have some responsibilities to care for ourselves too. We have a responsibility to not over burden the public health purse too – especially if we think that access to basic health care is a basic right. It is a complicated topic…. new thinking is needed…. I welcome dialogue about this topic…. thanks for taking the time to write! Looking forward to more discussion form others as well…. cheers Rhonda

  2. Marc

    We all know that tobacco is not good for one’s health… exactly the same as we all know that fast food is not the best food one can think of-. It’s all a question of proportionality : how many big Macs i have and how much of chateaubriand I can afford. it may be stupid to smoke or to eat fast food… but it is my right to be stupid if I wish to. Leave me alone your right lifestyle lessons, leave me alone with your nannying of my life.

    Back to reagonomics: the first and most important thing is that government exists to protect us from each other. I don’t believe in a government that protects me from myself.

    • Rhonda Wilson MHN

      Thanks Marc for your contribution to the conversation. It is certainly a topic that brings strong emotions to the fore. It is good to have these conversations – I think discussing ideas is usually a health thing to do. we need more positive ideas about solutions…. I hope that balance can be found as we work our way through this emotive topic – cheers! Rhonda

      • Marc

        No it is not “good to have these conversations” which should not take place: you have no right to decide for me on what is good or bad for me. Who are you to judge whether I’m up to “my responsibility to care about myself”? I do not have, nor do you or anybody else, a “responsibility not to overburden the public health purse”. We have a responsibility to comply with the law that our society – my elected representatives as well as yours – have adopted for the public good. Nothing that is not explicitly banned should be prohibited, and nothing that is explicitly compulsory should be imposed: this is a basic rule of human rights. If eating Big Macs and smoking is legal whatever the quantity, then it is my freedom to do that and it is the society’s responsibility to take care of the consequences of acts which are legal. If policy makers – and policy makers only: we don’t really care about individuals’ opinion such as mine or yours – feel this is unacceptable, then it is up to our elected representatives to change the law and either set quantitative limits to what I can consume or ban it altogether if it’s as bad as you say. Please spare us the argument of the cost to society, which is just another way of policing my life. The only thing which matters is whether what i’m doing is legal or not – and unless you are a law enforcer, I would ask you please to mind your own business only.

  3. Rhonda Wilson MHN

    All Registered Nurses in Australia (of which I am one) have a legal responsibility to advocate for public health…and to promote health and well-being. I happen to be a nurse with extra training…with that comes more responsibility to ensure that I do what I have been trained and registered to do – that is, advocate for human health. Sorry if that offends – but it is a critical human health matter. I have looked after many obese people, who do not plan to become obese – and they have said that if they could have had help earlier they would have appreciated it… I have also heard obese people speak of the horrendous embarrassment and shame that they experience, being denied regular health care because they don’t fit in the furniture or transport available to health services. These people didn’t plan this for their lives, and the emotional and physical pain at that point is too hard to bear by many…. The unintended consequences of our choices and freedoms are sometimes painful – nurses are there to help people to live life to the fullest, and to be able to enjoy good health and meaningful lives… it is my business in every sense. I and my nursing colleagues inform politicians and policy makers about health issues for populations. Nurses are the most plentiful health workforce in the world; there are millions of us, we should be doing our job better, becoming more political, so that we can fulfill our legal responsibilities better.
    I hope when you (or people you love) need a nurse in your life, that he or she has taken due care to promote your health and well-being. I wish you well, I am sorry that you don’t like the conversation – as important as it is. I am genuinely interested in your views and I value your contribution to the conversation, as demonstrated by me publishing your view which differs to mine. Difference is OK by me. Cheers Rhonda

  4. Marc

    Thank you Rhonda: no need to be defensive. Being a nurse entitles you to help those who ask for your help and assistance. It gives you NO mandate to protect people against themselves . it gives you no mandate to call for far reaching policy options which are detrimental to others’ legal and fundamental freedoms and which are clearly beyond your competence – such as calling for plain packaging which is in essence an intellectual property issue (which by the way could have very serious budgetary implication for those governments’ purses who would seek to confiscate them). It gives you no right to blame anyone for their alleged “burden on public health purse” as long as they behave lawfully. It give you no right to undermine any body’s property (intellectual property is just that: a property). It gives you no right to assess whether anyone is up to their “responsibility to care about themselves”.

    People need to be informed about the consequences of their lifestyle, but this is NOT the responsibility of manufacturers (eg of cigarettes) or service providers (eg fast food chains) to do that (beyond reasonable labeling requirements which by and large already exist). If someone is obese, it may be the fault of his/her genes or of their own lifestyle choices. This is NOT the responsibility of a third party: no one is forced to behave stupidly, and as already said, every one should have the right to do so. The “attractiveness” of such “bad” products or services can be no excuse for calling for plain packaging. Arguing the opposite would allow to argue that a thief is not responsible for the temptation of robbing wealthy people because the goods detained by those wealthy crowds are “attractive” to those who can’t afford them.

    If a product or a service is that bad: it should be banned. If is legal, so be it and as already said, this is a choice by society, the consequences of which are to be borne by those who allow the legal consumption of the products or service.

    I appreciate your sense of pluralism by publishing my views.You should equally accept that any legal business express their views by promoting and marketing their (legal) products because this is part of the fundamental freedoms granted by the society in which we live. You are disagreeing with their views and that’s your right. But you should not seek to undermine their right to communicate on ground that others are unable to behave as YOU think they should.

    I wish you a very good week end. Marc.

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