Overweight and obesity in Australia has risen at an alarming rate over the last 20 years as in other industrialised countries around the world, yet the policy response, locally and globally, has been limited. Using a childhood obesity summit held in Australia in 2002 as a case study, this paper examines how evidence was used in setting the agenda, influencing the Summit debate and shaping the policy responses which emerged. The study used multiple methods of data collection including documentary analysis, key informant interviews, a focus group discussion and media analysis. The resulting data were content analysed to examine the types of evidence used in the Summit and how the state of the evidence base contributed to policy-making.
Empirical research evidence concerning the magnitude of the problem was widely reported and largely uncontested in the media and in the Summit debates. In contrast, the evidence base for action was mostly opinion and ideas as empirical data was lacking. Opinions and ideas were generally found to be an acceptable basis for agreeing policy action coupled with thorough evaluation. However, the analysis revealed that the evidence was fiercely contested around food advertising to children and action agreed was therefore limited.
The Summit demonstrated that policy action will move forward in the absence of strong research evidence. Where powerful and competing groups contest possible policy options, however, the evidence base required for action needs to be substantial. As with tobacco control, obesity control efforts are likely to face ongoing challenges around the nature of the evidence and interventions proposed to tackle the problem. Overcoming the challenges in controlling obesity will be more likely if researchers and public health advocates enhance their understanding of the policy process, including the role different types of evidence can play in influencing public debate and policy decisions, the interests and tactics of the different stakeholders involved and the part that can be played by time-limited yet high profile events such as Summits.