DIET and exercise campaigns are so ineffective at preventing heart disease that they should be abandoned and replaced with strict regulation of salt levels in food combined with wider medication use, a study has found.
Pushing the public to change risky diet and exercise habits was a waste of money that had a ''trivial'' effect on improving population health, according to Linda Cobiac, a research fellow with the University of Queensland's school of public health who led a joint-university study into the effectiveness of cardiovascular disease prevention methods.
Heavy-handed food industry regulation by the government combined with more aggressive prescribing of heart drugs would be cheaper and save more lives than lifestyle counselling, she said, because most people found it hard to sustain exercise and diet programs long term.
''Instead, addressing high levels of salt hidden in processed foods is a very good way to subtly lower blood pressure across the whole population,'' Dr Cobiac said. ''It leads to sustained improvements in people's health and to very large reductions in the costs of treating cardiovascular disease down the track.''
The research published online by the Public Library of Science also included Deakin University in Melbourne and the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation in the US. It found $4.2 billion could be saved in healthcare expenditure annually if salt limits were imposed on foods, cholesterol-lowering drugs were made more affordable and preventive drugs were given to those with a 5 per cent or higher risk of developing cardiovascular disease within five years.
Current Australian guidelines recommend drugs as a first-line approach only for those with a 15 per cent or higher risk of developing the disease.
The senior director of the George Institute for Global Health, Bruce Neal, said he agreed with the findings but added the government had a ''hands-off'' approach to food industry regulation.
''The last thing the government wants is a battle with another industry group, but if there is any industry it should be having a battle with at the moment it is the food industry,'' Professor Neal said. ''The primary cause of bad health in Australia is the food industry and unless the government takes a firm hand and puts in regulation of salt in food, nothing is going to change.''
Although many people tried to adopt public health messages such as ''eat less salt'', they were doomed to failure because it was impossible to easily tell which foods were high in salt, he said.
A clinical adviser with the National Prescribing Service, Danielle Stowasser, said anyone with an overall heart disease risk of 5 per cent or more should talk to their doctor before changing their treatment regime.
From: The Sydney Morning Herald