Illustration: Ron Tandberg.
A CHILD'S weight should be included in their school report as part of a radical plan to tackle the obesity crisis, according to the man who led Australia's successful response to the AIDS epidemic.
David Penington, who chaired the National AIDS Task Force from 1983 to 1987, also suggests the GST be raised and extended to a broader range of foods to encourage healthy eating.
Professor Penington, a former Melbourne University vice-chancellor and dean of medicine, told an obesity summit in Canberra this week that the inclusion of weight in primary school reports could spark discussion between teachers and parents about their children's diet and level of physical activity.
''Some obesity does start in early childhood just with very bad eating habits,'' Professor Penington said.
''It's not that I want the schools to be seen as the body responsible, but nonetheless use the school environment as a way to contribute to ensuring that the broader issues are there for discussion.''
Child and adolescent psychologist Michael Carr-Gregg said schools could play a role in preventing obesity but warned that placing a child's weight on their report card could trigger depression and anxiety and lead to bullying.
Christine Morgan, chief executive of the Butterfly Foundation, which works to prevent eating disorders, said weight was not the best measure of health, and reporting weight could undermine children's self-esteem.
''I would be very concerned that this would have some very detrimental impacts on a young person and would actually be very counterproductive,'' she said.
Australian Education Union federal president Angelo Gavrielatos said schools had a role to play in teaching children about healthy lifestyles, but more resources should be directed to supporting parents.
''We cannot continue to expect more and more from schools, which takes away from the core responsibility of teachers,'' he said.
A federal Health Department spokeswoman said placing children's weight on report cards would not be a federal responsibility, and the department's approach was to promote healthy eating and physical activity.
Coalition health spokesman Peter Dutton said: ''We support people having the information they need to make choices for themselves and their children. We do not support reporting on a child's weight on their report card.''
Obesity Australia chairman John Funder said the idea would need to be implemented sensitively, and suggested parents of overweight children be offered the chance to talk to their physical education teacher.
Professor Penington said the GST could be changed to encourage those in low socioeconomic groups - who suffer disproportionately from obesity - to eat more fresh fruit and vegetables and less processed food. Currently fresh food is GST free, but the tax applies to hot takeaway foods, ice-cream, biscuits, confectionary, soft drinks and some other prepared foods.
Professor Penington said fresh fruit and vegetables should remain GST free, and an expert group could decide which other foods remained free of GST based on their nutritional value. He suggested other foods be subject to the tax, which could be raised to provide extra revenue to cover rising healthcare costs.
''Telling people over television to eat better doesn't do very much,'' Professor Penington said. ''Price signals do influence behaviour.''
Since 1980, the proportion of Australians who are obese has almost tripled and now stands at 28 per cent. About one-quarter of Australian children are overweight or obese.