A major VicHealth grant awarded to Dr Jennifer Browne and Ngiyampaa academic Dr Mark Lock, from the Institute for Health Transformation’s Global Obesity Centre at Deakin University, underpins a groundbreaking new study that will examine and report on the health and wellbeing impacts of commercial activities on Aboriginal people and communities.

With up to $200,000 in funding available under VicHealth’s Impact Research Grant program, Dr Browne and Dr Lock will lead a team of senior researchers, early career researchers, practitioners and PhD students, predominantly comprising Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander peoples.

Dr Browne, a Research Fellow based at Deakin University’s Waterfront Campus, has previously contributed to a number of funded projects examining food and nutrition policy with Aboriginal communities, working in partnership with the Victorian Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation (VACCHO). This new project will specifically examine the influence of commercial enterprises such as business, retail and advertising on the health and wellbeing of Victorian Aboriginal people.

She says the Commercial Determinants of Health – profit-focused strategies and activities of commercial interests that impact health – have been largely absent from current Aboriginal health research and policy, and will be applied utilising a culturally safe methodology informed by the cultural knowledge of project co-lead, Dr Lock.

‘Our research privileges the voices of Victorian Aboriginal people as participants and researchers, and facilitates their cultural strengths to have strategic impact on detrimental commercial activities,’ Dr Lock says.

The research will aim to understand if the development, supply and marketing of “potentially harmful” products and commercial activities on Aboriginal land may also be undermining the social, emotional, spiritual, and cultural wellbeing of Aboriginal communities.

Examining ‘potentially harmful’ impacts

Dr Browne and Dr Lock cite several examples of commercial influences that may be impacting upon Aboriginal health and wellbeing, including unacceptably high food prices in remote areas, attempts to build a Dan Murphy’s alcohol superstore near three dry communities, the destruction of the Juukan Gorge caves by mining company Rio Tinto, and the rise of unhealthy commodity marketing through online platforms.

They say that while unhealthy food, tobacco, alcohol and gambling are well understood to contribute to health inequities for Aboriginal people, the influence of commercial activities specifically on the health of Victorian Aboriginal people remains unstudied.

Particular attention on the impact on Aboriginal young people of exposure to online marketing of unhealthy products will be the first research of its kind.

This study will be embedded within a larger study of harmful online advertising, to be led by Associate Professor Kathryn Backholer M, a co-director of IHT’s Global Obesity Centre. Dr Browne says this will generate new knowledge about the feasibility of this approach for Aboriginal young people, and provide a first-ever understanding of its likely extent and nature.

“In interrogating this unexamined aspect of Aboriginal health, the research will yield unique insights that will strengthen both government and Aboriginal community efforts to create a healthier, more equitable and socially responsible Victoria,” she says.