Beyond the “hot tub”: Australia’s runaway obesity epidemic

How sure are you that you won’t lose your feet or toes to diabetes?

According to a new report by the Obesity Collective, based at the Charles Perkins Centre at the University of Sydney, obesity in Australia is getting much, much worse.

Between 2014-15 and 2017-18, the obesity rate in Australian adults rose from 27.9% to 31.3%.

In other words, over the past 3 years, an additional 900,000 Australians became obese.

Sixty-seven percent of Australian adults are now either overweight or obese (2017-18), an increase from 63.4% in 2014-15.

That’s astonishing.

Astonishingly bad news.

Australia now ranks 5th out of 44 OECD countries in the obesity stakes – it’s a race we shouldn’t be trying to win.

If this trend persists, how will we look in 2027-28?

By that time, nearly nine million Australians will be obese.

Think of the cost – not only costs to our taxpayer-funded health care system, but premature deaths from cardiovascular disease, obesity-related cancers, limbs, feet and toes amputated due to our runaway diabetes epidemic.

According to Diabetes Australia, 4,400 diabetes-related amputations already occur each year in Australia.

That’s set to get worse.

 

Australia’s runaway obesity epidemic needs to become an election issue

How long till we see concerted national action that is not choreographed by the big food lobby?

Did you know that the Australian Food & Grocery Council seeks a “constructive and collaborative response to obesity”?

They’ve been saying stuff like that for years.

I call it the “hot tub approach”.  Let’s all jump into the hot tub together and soap each other’s backs, and see what we can achieve…together.

This “constructive and collaborative approach” – characterised by voluntarism, and weak accountability structures – has been official policy in Canberra for years.

It would be great if it actually worked.

But if it was going to work, wouldn’t we be seeing positive results by now?

 

Life outside of the “hot tub”

There is life beyond the hot tub.

Feasible policy options to halt Australia’s obesity epidemic have been identified.  We know what we could and should do.

The “Australian Obesity Prevention Consensus” sets out an evidence-based policy agenda for the federal government.

Implementing the (surprisingly strong and certainly welcome) recommendations of the Senate Select Committee into the Obesity Epidemic in Australia would also be a good place to start.

The INFORMAS Network monitors the actions of state and federal governments and has issued scorecards on the performance of Australian governments, with priority recommendations.  (Watch out for the 2019 Food Policy Index Progress report, to be launched on 2 April 2019).

These reports include recommendations for legal and regulatory changes that the processed food industry will resist.

Like implementing credible – as distinct from voluntary, weak and loophole-ridden – standards to protect children from exposure to unhealthy food and drink marketing.

Like setting ambitious, time-sensitive and independently-monitored targets for reformulation to be met by food manufacturers, retailers and caterers.

Like a health levy on sugary drinks.  (Remember folks, at the end of the day, it’s only sugar water, not holy water).

Like making the Health Star Rating system mandatory.

No one likes sharing hot, soapy water with the folks from “big food” more than me, but the statistics speak for themselves.

Over the last 10 years, the number of Australians with obesity has more than doubled, from 2.7 million (2007-08) to 5.8 million in 2017-18.

It’s time to get out of the hot tub, and to implement long-recommended, evidence-based policies to create healthier food environments.

Put another Winfield on the Barbie

Having actor Paul Hogan headline Cure Cancer’s “Barbecure” makes no sense to me.

Put another shrimp on the barbie, I get it.  But so what?

Hogan may regret the staggeringly successful “Anyhow, have a Winfield” advertising campaign he headed in the 1970s, but his presence in a cure cancer campaign is inept.  It muddies the message.

Winfield is a brand of cigarettes now owned by British American Tobacco Australia.

Of his former campaign for Winfield, Hogan has said “Yeah, we were encouraging people to smoke.

“Young ones were taking up smoking and all going for Winfield. It was a staggering success but I was a drug dealer. But who knew then?”

This is not to suggest that Hogan is not sincere in wanting to help.  I’m sure he is.

But why does an organisation raising funds to support cancer research ask one of the most effective promoters of tobacco in Australian history, someone who is still, apparently, a smoker – to front the campaign?

Curing cancer…a tale of two strategies

Cure Cancer’s Barbeque concept seems to be about raising money for what we might call “techy” solutions to treating cancer – funding research towards a new drug or therapy.

(Must say, though, I love the idea about hosting a barbie, telling the guest list they’re not invited and hitting them for hard cold cash instead).

Cancer research is, of course, worthy and deserving of funding.  Who knows, many of us may one day benefit from such research and the therapies that result.

But there’s another way to cure cancer as well…it’s called reducing the risk that Australians will get cancer in future.

Using smart public policies, we can prevent the risk that Australians will get heart disease, and diabetes too.

Unfortunately, preventive health enjoys a fraction of the profile – and almost none of the money – that techy solutions like research towards new drugs or therapies attract.

This could be because one important dimension of prevention at the population level is regulation, and that makes prevention a political matter.

Australia has a pretty shabby record in using law and regulation to reduce modifiable risk factors for the non-communicable diseases that are responsible for the overwhelming share of death and disability in this country.

When it comes to food and diet-related risk factors, for example, see the scorecard and priority recommendations for Australian governments issued by the Global Obesity Centre, a WHO Collaborating Centre for Obesity Prevention, at Deakin University.

How many lifetimes till these are implemented, I wonder?

A decade ago, the National Preventative Health Taskforce released a blueprint for improving the health of Australians.

I can no longer find that report on the Australian Government’s website.

Although the government has raised the excise on tobacco and implemented plain tobacco packaging, no formal targets have been set for reductions in obesity or dietary risk factors, and prevention policy has been described as “flapping in the wind” (Swannell 2016).

Preventing cancer is “curing” cancer too

The Australian Preventive Health Agency, which was established to spearhead preventive efforts, and to fund preventive research, was de-funded and is extinct.

This move damaged momentum on preventive health in Australia, as Leeder, Wutzke, and many others have pointed out.

Which is a shame, because preventing cancer is “curing” cancer too.

Are you interested in health law?  Sydney Law School offers a Master of Health Law with mid-year entry.  See here and here for more information.