JENI O’DOWD: Australians are fat and it’s time to have a real conversation about obesity rates and sugar taxes

Jeni O’Dowd
The Nightly
Obesity is becoming a huge problem in Australia. A sugar tax will help solve it.
Obesity is becoming a huge problem in Australia. A sugar tax will help solve it. Credit: Naomi Craigs

There’s an unspoken rule in our house: we don’t say the F-word.

Nope, not the four-letter one you’re probably thinking of — I’m talking about the word “fat.”

If my hubby or I even hint at someone’s size or fashion choices that might show off a bit of blubbery belly, our three Gen Z kids are quick to shut us down, telling us in no uncertain terms people can look how they want and wear what they like.

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But can they? Australia’s obesity rates are shocking. In 2022, two-thirds of adults were overweight or obese, and only three in 10 were within a healthy weight range. And there is no sign that this trend is slowing.

It’s time for a conversation about how to bring these rates down, considering the severe health consequences of being obese, such as heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, and even some cancers.

Obesity has significant financial implications for our health system. In 2018 alone, it cost the Australian community a staggering $11.8 billion. If nothing is done, it will balloon to an estimated $87.7 billion by 2032.

But attitudes on the subject vary, often evoking accusations of fat shaming and insensitivity. I don’t think people should be stigmatised because of their weight. But there needs to be — without the hysteria — a rational debate that focuses on finding practical solutions.

It’s a conversation that our peak medical body, the Australian Medical Association, has been trying to have for years with little success.

The facts are sobering. Rates of obesity in Australian adults have been steadily increasing for at least 25 years, from 19 per cent in 1995.

There has also been an upward trend among children aged five to 17, from 5 per cent in 1995 to 8 per cent in 2018. A third of the projected adult population will be obese by 2025.

AMA President Professor Steve Robson has a stark warning: Australia’s health system could go bankrupt within a decade if these figures continue to rise as expected.

“Being overweight and obese puts enormous strain on the health system as both cause conditions such as adult-onset diabetes and associated complications such as stroke and cardiovascular disease,” he told The Nightly.

“Obese people are also more prone to conditions such as osteoporosis. There are literally 10,000 such people on the public hospital waiting list for a hip or knee replacement, an enormous cost that is easily preventable if people maintain a healthy weight range and are active.

“If the obesity rates drop to what they were 20 years ago, many of these problems will simply disappear.”

Twenty years ago, we mostly ate meat and three veg for dinner. Meals were prepared with fresh ingredients at home. Nowadays, we have a vastly different diet, with easy access to takeaway, food delivery and pre-prepared processed meals.

The supermarket crisis is not helping, with many people choosing junk food over healthy options simply because junk food is cheaper than fresh meat and vegetables.

Professor Robson said the easy availability of low-nutrition food and sugary drinks, which are associated with high calories and low nutrition, helped people gain weight, combined with a drop in physical activity.

Nowadays, many kids play video games sitting on a couch or use their phones while lying on their beds instead of playing outside. Adults are no better.

When in opposition, Federal Labor promised to explore regulations on ‘unhealthy’ products, sparking optimism among advocates for a sugar tax. Why aren’t they doing that now they hold power? Are they that scared?

Of course, the problem of obesity is not limited to Australia. A study released last month by the British medical journal The Lancet found that, in 2022, more than a billion worldwide are living with obesity, meaning global overeating has become a bigger problem than world hunger, with more people now obese than underweight.

But faced with this problem, the World Health Organisation reports that more than 108 countries worldwide — including the UK, the US, Spain, France, and India — have implemented a sugar tax on sugar-sweetened drinks.

The evidence already shows that in those countries, the rates of obesity are dropping.

The AMA, Dieticians Australia, and other health bodies have long advocated for such a tax in Australia. Professor Robson estimates it could raise more than $1b annually — a welcome injection back into the health system to treat the associated diseases.

He says many people do not understand how much sugar is in some of these drinks. Many contain 10 teaspoons of sugar in just a glass and have little, if not zero, nutritional value.

Most brands offer zero- or low-sugar alternatives, so what is stopping the Government from implementing what seems like a no-brainer?

Not surprisingly, the Australian Beverages Council is against a sugar tax. Part of its argument is that people are responsible for having a healthy lifestyle and that Governments should not interfere with personal choice by trying to influence decisions about what to buy and what to eat.

Other critics say if there is a sugar tax, people will swap a sugary drink for a bar of chocolate. Some claim it doesn’t reduce obesity rates, which Professor Robson describes as a “total fantasy.”

He said the UK introduced a sugar levy about seven years ago; since then, as much as 47,000 tonnes of less sugar have been consumed yearly. The data is similar in Latin American countries.

Another argument against a sugar tax is the impact on our sugar farmers. However, considering Australia exports about 80 per cent of its raw sugar overseas (the world’s fourth largest raw sugar exporter), such an impact would be minimal.

Interestingly, according to a report by the Cancer Council in Victoria, the Tobacco Industry used a few similar arguments about increasing cigarette tax.

The industry said any increase could force consumers to switch to dangerous alternatives like higher tar or higher nicotine cigarettes, and such taxes were paternalistic. Governments should “stay out of people’s lives”.

And yes, Australians pay some of the highest tobacco taxes in the world. But the rate of smoking has dropped from more than 24 per cent in 1991 to a little over 10 per cent in 2022.

When in opposition, Federal Labor promised to explore regulations on “unhealthy” products, sparking optimism among advocates for a sugar tax. Why aren’t they doing that now they hold power? Are they that scared?

Yes, proposing a new tax inevitably faces political resistance; no one relishes championing a new tax.

However, while millions of Aussies continue sitting on the couch every night stuffing themselves with sugary drinks, chips, ice cream or chocolate, coupled with a generation who think being overweight is normal, perhaps a sugar tax is the tax we have to have.


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The front page of The Nightly for 12-07-2024

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