The fat fight

Another national report slams Australians as obese, and it’s becoming tedious. Yes, we know that most Australian adults are overweight or obese, we see that every day; yes, we know that far too many children are obese, and we see that every day too.

Yes, we know the obesity among adults and children is a bigger problem in the bottom half of the socio-economic scale, and we see that in certain suburbs and, most shockingly, in shopping centres frequented by people of those suburbs. And we know why Australians are overweight – we know we eat too much, we eat the wrong food, we drink too much and we exercise too little. We see that every day, and very probably in our own daily life and in our family.

So maybe we need to get over it and move on, embracing plumpness as the Australian shape, just as, unfortunately, we’ve had to accept tattoos as the Australian cultural expression of a generation.

Individual Australians do change their diet for the better but masses of Australians do not, and it seems more unlikely with every government obesity report that the success of anti-smoking campaigns will be matched by anti-fat campaigns. Five serves of vegetables a day? Many Australians wouldn’t eat five serves of vegetables a week, and as many may never have eaten five different vegetables in a week!

We don’t need more reports like that of the just-released Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, we do need government action of the type that cut the rate of smoking so dramatically.

First, a fat tax, a punitive tax on fast, ready-to-eat and processed food that exceeds certain limits for fat and, of course, sugar. My observations as a smoker, and now very much a former smoker, were that tax forcing up the price of cigarettes was the most effective disincentive to continue smoking and to take up smoking. A Big Mac, for example, would cost twice as much as healthier burgers.

Second, bans on the promotion of food that exceeds certain limits for fat and sugar. Maccas, for example, would not be permitted to promote its Big Mac, and it may be that it could not show the image of that and similar fatty burgers, much like tobacco products must be hidden now. Perhaps retailers that sold these restricted products could be banned from promoting any of their products at times and places likely to reach a significant number of children.

Third, restrictions on the selling of fatty and sugary food, as in buyers being above a certain age, limits on hours of business, the requirement for an expensive and onerous licence.

And fourth, grim photos of the consequences of obesity akin to those on cigarette packets. These photos would adorn burger boxes, bottles of fizzy and packets of biscuits, and as well as gangrenous legs they could show the difficulties of personal hygiene and other seldom discussed consequences of obesity.

I believe the emphasis on fighting obesity should move from personal responsibility to government responsibility, because private obesity has become a public problem. And appealing to personal responsibility has not worked despite almost incessant government reports and pleadings and it won’t work. The reason is as obvious as the fact that we are bombarded with advertising to not only eat more, but to eat more fat and more sugar.

For a long time sweet and fatty foods were promoted as a reward but for two decades or more now they’ve been promoted as the staple. That can be as simple as the billboard at McDonald’s asking ‘‘Hungry?’’, as common as waiting in a bus shelter, watching television, watching sport, buying a litre of milk or a newspaper. And we, all of us, are highly susceptible to this promotion because all but the poorest can afford to reward ourselves as often as we please, and so the more often the more we’re pleased.

And as those who occasionally overcome the craving for fatty and sugary foods know, these foods are strangely addictive, they create their own hunger. The more we eat the more we want to eat.

The time for reports has passed.

Do we need a fat tax? Should fat and sugar become the new tobacco?

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