Eating ourselves to death: Is obesity the new black?

Battling globesity with frowns, fines, hazard labels and taxes!

Last week, I watched with interest the worldwide media coverage of dating and social networking site’s decision to axe 5000 members simply because they put on weight over the festive season.

Marketed as “the sexiest website and largest network of attractive people in the world”, is the first global community of its kind, attracting over 550,000 genetically-blessed members from 16 countries since launching in 2009.

The terms and conditions for becoming a member are straightforward – an applicant is voted in by existing members of the opposite sex after uploading a photo and answering a few questions. Then, if the elite community deems them beautiful, they’re  in, but if they don’t,  it’s back to trawling LavaLife, friends barbecues or the local RSL at 2am to get some attention / digits / sex / validation.

When a few beautiful members complained about other members’ weight gain over the silly season, took immediate action and sanctioned the bloated beauties by bumping them back to “new applicant” stage. They then failed to get the votes to retain their status as one of the chosen few.

Unlike people such as James Zervios of the Obesity Action Coalition who said the site was not “appropriate” and that “people needed to be looked at for more than just what’s on the outside”, I actually support’s move. The company is well within its rights to enforce the terms and conditions that every new applicant voluntarily agrees to.

But more importantly, should be congratulated because it inadvertently helped further highlight the fastest growing epidemic in mankind’s history – obesity.

When you hear the term “epidemic”, your mind typically goes straight to AIDS, SARS or H5N1. However, obesity, because it’s deemed acceptable or non-life threatening, remains a subject that rarely attracts the media coverage it deserves. But make no bones about it, obesity deserves and demands our attention. It is a truly global epidemic – hence the term Globesity – that the World Health Organisation describes as “one of the biggest public health challenges of the 21st century for all age groups”.

The problem with global epidemics is that they’re global. Conventional “top down” exploration and discussion of human troubles this huge creates distance between everyday individuals and the larger-than-life collective social issue. This distance effectively robs the average person of responsibility, and the associative challenge of trying to find, or be part of a solution. Describing the big issues at a global or national level is highly useful for creating awareness and setting the context, but if these efforts fail to answer the fundamental question: “OK, so now what do I do?”, then it’s really all for nought.



Putting it in context: The real ‘human’ cost of obesity

A capitalist industrial society encourages people to think in terms of numbers. We tend to focus on the financial aspects of issues – whether it’s a company’s fiscal performance, the latest blockbuster movie ticket sales, the cost of a war or global pandemic.

Subsequently, we are overwhelmed by economic data on the direct and indirect financial costs of obesity on the health care system and workplace which reaches into the billions, but underwhelmed by the real human cost – the lives lost from this epidemic.

The focus on figures takes away the very real human impact of obesity. While the cost to our economy is enormous, the real cost of obesity, the human cost, is genuinely staggering. And though we’re yet to see definitive and reliable Australian obesity related mortality and morbidity data, an analysis of US data provides us with a useful benchmark.

The United States Centre for Disease Control estimates that about 300,000 adults die prematurely each year due to obesity, with the total cost of obesity related illness, treatment and loss of workplace productivity estimated at US$140 billion per year. Considering that the US has a population of 300 million, this is a staggering death rate that is even more concerning when it’s extrapolated against Australia’s population.

Using the above US average of 1 person per 1000 ratio this equates to 20,000 deaths per year – equal to the total deaths from smoking per annum, or the combined deaths from dementia/Alzheimer’s, blood and lymph cancer, breast cancer, prostate cancer, suicide and skin cancer.

Given the huge death rate, why isn’t the Government stepping in and taking action? More importantly, why aren’t we getting of our collective arses to do something about it? The latter question has a scarily simple answer …

… We don’t think we’re fat!

The 2004 National Health Survey revealed that by and large, Australians don’t believe they’re fat. Only about one-third of adults surveyed considered themselves to be overweight, which was substantially lower than the actual rates of 62 per cent of males and 45 per cent of females classified as overweight or obese.

So even as various government departments, such as the Department of Health and Aging, are struggling with their small budgets to alert us to the fact that the number of overweight and obese adults has doubled over the past two decades, we are still mostly immobile on our couches watching TV while scoffing excess carbohydrates, unable or unwilling to make the intellectual, or eventual physical leap, to accept that Australia is now one of the fattest developed nations, and then take individual action to prevent this situation from worsening.







So, where to from here? Fines and frowns…

The obesity problem is a fairly new one for the Australian Government and its newly formed National Obesity Taskforce (NOT). The taskforce, charged with developing and implementing programs and policies to address the rising rates of the overweight and obese, has only just started to have an impact.

NOT is focussed on developing and rolling out community education programs that aim to build awareness of diet, encourage healthy eating and regular physical activity. This is a truly noble goal and a great start, but given the current state of the obesity epidemic, the rapid pace of escalation and the general apathy among Australians to change, I think the Government needs to be a tad more heavy-handed if it wants to bring about real results.

Government intervention that involves hardline legislation on both junk-food manufacturers as well as obese people is the only way to bring rapid change and “encourage” all parties to start taking responsibility. Imposing taxes on foods high in saturated fats and sugar will increase prices and make them less financially attractive to consumers. Restricting advertising of junk food to children, and introducing compulsory warning labels are big but bold steps that would have an impact far faster than community education programs. And if this sounds like an extreme measure, think again, we’ve done it before with smoking.

Smoking was once associated with being cool, sexy and beautiful, but over time society became aware of its negative health impacts for both smokers and non smokers. Limiting the associated costs that smoking-related disease and illness placed on an already overburdened health care system became a government priority. The Government took action and raised taxes on cigarettes, restricted tobacco advertising and implemented mandatory health warning labels on cigarette packets. It even went so far as banning smoking indoors in public venues.

So what is the net result of two-to-three decades of anti-smoking governmental policy and legislation? The rate of smoking has declined, the number of deaths has fallen and the burden of smoking related illnesses on the health care system has dropped. Public places and venues are mostly all smoke free, and huge fines have helped limit underage access to cigarettes. How has this all occurred? By and large it’s the result of persistent community education, backed by hard-nosed legislation focussed on taxation, regulation and penalisation.

If the Government is comfortable imposing fines on people, public venues and retailers for breaching smoking laws, and enforcing compliance with health warning legislation on manufacturers, why can’t it face up to the fact that obesity is an equal, or even bigger, public health issue and implement the same strategies to curb the epidemic? What are they waiting for? More deaths?

Taiwan is in the process of introducing the world’s first national government imposed junk food tax, and the Romanian Health Minister recently announced plans to impose a similar tax, planning to use the revenue to fight obesity and prop up the county’s impoverished healthcare system.

But are Australians ready for such action? It appears so. A recent survey commissioned by Research Australia revealed that two-thirds of Australians agree with a tax on junk foods. So if there’s a precedent in place that works such as the regulation on smoking, and the market is comfortable with this precedent and ready for government intervention, why isn’t anything happening?

The answer is twofold – money and general apathy. The National Obesity Taskforce has a budget of about $110 million. This sounds like a good start, but when you consider that fast-food companies spend in excess of $4 billion per annum marketing their products in Australia, it doesn’t measure up. If the Government is to take the obesity epidemic seriously, it needs to make obesity prevention a public health priority and allocate funds accordingly.

But how do we get the Government to take this epidemic seriously? Public support!

This is where you and I come in. By getting off our couches and taking action, either by acting as role models, instead of roll models, for our children and families. By eating better and exercising more, and by working together to pressure governments at local, state and national levels to implement public health policies and programs that address the epidemic.

Nothing will change until we all change. It will take the actions of every adult who votes at an election, or with their credit card at the local supermarket, to initiate real change. Only then can we hope to curb the obesity epidemic and give ourselves and future generations a better chance of living the full, rich lives that are our birthright, something that 62 per cent of Australian men and 45 per cent of Australian women are sadly missing out on.

A view of the future…

I’d like to see the day where you see a skull and crossbones sticker on the side of a chips packet warning consumers that over-consumption could lead to obesity. Or on the side of a Coca Cola bottle warning that over-consumption could lead to diabetes or blindness. Where the guy at the local 7-11 has the right to refuse service to the overweight child who comes in wanting sweets, or better yet, when it has become broadly acceptable to “socially sanction” obese people from eating junk food in a similar manner to how we sneer at smokers. That’ll be the day.