Since the World Health Organisation recognised first recognised obesity as a growing health problem in 1980, no country has succeeded in reducing obesity rates.
Capitalism promotes the benefits of competition. Undoubtedly there are some. But as long as there are profits to be made from it, competition among food companies will lead them to resist regulation and to develop an endless series of competitive strategies to pump more enticing fat, sugar and salt into consumers.
There are nine million obese and overweight adult Australians and of these four million are technically obese. Education campaigns are clearly not enough. Everywhere Governments seems reluctant to regulate in an attempt to reduce obesity.
Obesity is a far greater threat to health and wellbeing, for a far larger number of Australians, than is terrorism. Yet the Commonwealth seems more than willing to increase both spending and heavy handed regulatory solutions to prevent terrorism. The political risk to government from terrorism is higher than from obesity. Government can be blamed for failing to have taken sufficient measures to prevent terrorist attacks which instantly kill innocent victims. Obesity causes death or disability in a more stealthy manner and governments can always shift blame for the health impacts of obesity back to the individual.
The current Government itself acknowledges that anti-terrorism laws will impact on individual liberties and freedoms. Prime Minister Tony Abbott has stated that the “delicate balance” between freedom and security will have to shift for some time towards security in light of the heightened terror risk.
By way of contrast there has been no real shift in the balance between freedom and security when it comes to tackling the obesity problem. Why? One is drawn to the conclusion the political liberties and freedoms to be restricted by anti-terror laws are regarded as less important than the liberties and freedoms of the commercial market, namely the “freedom” for companies to encourage the consumption of fat and sugar and the “freedom” of consumers to become obese from eating too much of these products.
Tony Abbott, when Health Minister in the Howard Government, framed the obesity problem as being about individuals, including parents, exercising more responsibility. Government’s should not step in because parents are “weak willed” said Abbott.
But why not? Victoria’s child protection mandatory reporting regime encourages reporting of any instance where: “The child’s physical development or health has been, or is likely to be significantly harmed and the parents are unable or unwilling to provide basic care, or effective medical or other remedial care.”
Moreover, unless Abbott claims that Australians have suddenly become more “weak willed” since the 1980’s, we would have had these rates of obesity a long time ago. It is true that it is hard to see any solution to the obesity problem that does not involve individuals taking charge of their eating and exercise habits. But it must be changed social conditions that has led to the increased incidence of obesity, including child obesity, so addressing those social conditions must also be an essential ingredient of any solution.
The Labor government at least recognised that obesity, like health problems arising from smoking and alcohol, is a problem with social causes. It made preventative health a priority. It was a world leader on plain packaging for cigarette’s and tried sending a price signal to prevent binge drinking by taxing “alcopops”.
Nicola Roxon was praised for having put prevention on the map. Nevertheless Labor failed to implement most of the Preventative Health Taskforce recommendations on obesity. The recommendations included educational measures, but also price incentives for healthier food and exercise, regulation of trans-fat, salt and sugar in food, curbs on advertising of energy dense foods and better food labelling. In 2012 the former Government ran a $40 million anti-obesity marketing campaign called “swap It -don’t stop it” which was slammed by Professor Paul Zimmit, who was a member of the Taskforce, as being a waste of money.
Labor openly considered obesity to be a lower priority for preventative health than tobacco and alcohol. Minister Roxon stated that Labor planned to hold off on taking action on obesity, preferring to “continue to build the evidence base” because the data is so far “pretty unclear about which interventions are going to be most successful” for obesity prevention. But given the extent of the problem perhaps some trial and error might have been justified?
Labor did create a $72 million fund to which Local Governments could apply for programs to deliver “effective community-based physical activity and dietary education programs, as well as developing a range of policy environments to support healthy lifestyle behaviours”.
But is it really a case of not knowing what might work? Or are the things that might work just too politically unpalatable? In other words, are there political explanations for the failure by government to take sufficient action to combat obesity?
A problem like obesity seems to call for national solutions, rather than local government solutions. But obesity is a particularly sensitive problem. Confronting it essentially requires a Government to tell voters that they, or their children, are fatter than the national interest can tolerate. One can try and spin the message in less confronting ways but in the end this is the fundamental problem.
Selling policies that aim to have people lose weight is more unpalatable for government than telling people that they should not smoke or should drink less alcohol. This is because tobacco and alcohol are substances that enter the body. Fat, however, IS the body. It is part of the person. This makes it easy for an unscrupulous Opposition or food industry to attack serious regulation designed to reduce obesity by claiming that no food is harmful in moderation, the fundamental problem lies with individuals, not with industry, and that government has no business trying to dictate to people how they should eat.
So, rather than turning to broader regulatory policies, that might easily be denounced as “nanny state”, Labor turned to local government to lead the programmatic response to obesity.
One thing is clear. Industry cannot be relied upon to lead responsible action. If industry was going to lead responsible action it would have done so in the 35 years since the WHO first identified obesity as a growing health problem. Left to its own devices industry is just as likely to exploit consumer worries about weight to increase their profits, without actually making any real change. The latest example is the ‘Motely Fool’ website exposure of Pizza Hut in the US over its so-called “slimming piazza”. Pizza Hut were selling the same 14 inch pizza for the same price, just with less dough and thinner topping. Instead of admitting that they had simply reduced the ingredients, Pizza Hut marketed their “new product” as the “slimming pizza”.