Prof JW

Time for tougher action on salt – lives depend on it

This week is World Salt Awareness Week - a timely reminder that eating too much salt is bad for health.  High blood pressure is one of the biggest contributors to premature death from stroke or heart disease and too much salt in the diet is one of the major culprits. At about 9g per day, average salt intake in Australia is almost double WHO recommendations (5g per day).  Worldwide, excess salt intake is estimated to cause about three million deaths each year.

Almost everyone needs to eat less salt but it’s very hard to do that when salt is ubiquitous in the food supply. Reducing population salt intake requires efforts from the food industry to reduce the amount of salt in processed foods. But there are profits involved, so it is unlikely that there will be significant change without government intervention.

But government intervention would be well worth the price.  New modelling research commissioned by The George Institute demonstrates that any government intervention to reduce salt would yield a positive social return on investment (SROI). The highest SROI would be through mandatory salt targets where every dollar spent to achieve a 1g reduction in salt intake would save the government ten dollars. This equates to double the social return on investment compared to voluntary salt targets and more than four times the SROI compared to behaviour change programs.  This supports the need for strong government intervention (preferably mandatory regulation) to reduce salt levels in foods.

The UK government is often cited as having one of the most successful salt reduction programs in the world.  Whilst not mandatory, its comprehensive program of monitoring food companies’ progress towards achieving a comprehensive program of targets, which started in 2006, led to a fairly rapid reduction in population salt intakes of 1.5g (around 15%) which was estimated to be saving around 9,000 lives a year by 2011.

Meanwhile efforts in Australia are seriously lagging. Whilst targets set through the previous government’s Food and Health Dialogue led to small but significant reductions in salt in some product categories, progress was halted with the change of government.  Efforts to revise and establish new targets through the current government have been excruciatingly slow. Despite a flurry of effort and months of meetings, the targets were not agreed before elections, resulting in further delays.  The announcement in recent weeks that the ‘first wave’ of salt targets has been endorsed, with a second expected to follow mid-2020 is welcome. But the actual targets and plan for implementation is yet to be announced.

If Australia is to meet its commitment to a 30 per cent reduction in the average population salt intake by 2025, these targets will need to be implemented immediately as interim targets, and more progressive targets will need to be set and preferably mandated.

The Social Return on Investment is clear. With more than six million Australian adults – that’s more than a third of our adult population - having high blood pressure, reducing Australian salt consumption would save thousands of lives each year as well as millions in healthcare costs.

Authored by Professor Jacqui Webster