We have the tools to fight obesity, so let's use them (Herald Sun)

Wednesday 24 October, 2018
by Jane Martin

Sadly being above a healthy weight has become the norm in Australia with nearly two-thirds of adults and over a quarter of children being classified as overweight or obese.

We already know obesity, poor diet and a lack of physical activity contribute to the large proportion of preventable disease in Australia.

Around 4,000 cancer cases in Australia are linked to being above a healthy weight each year. With no drop in obesity rates the list of cancers attributable to obesity is set to increase.

At a time when obesity rates are already sky high Cancer Council Victoria’s new campaign communicates an important health message at a critical time. Exposing how sugary drinks can lead to unhealthy weight gain, which can increase the risk of 13 types of cancers, the campaign aims to improve people’s understanding of the obesity-cancer link. It gives us a simple tool to reduce cancer risk – avoid unhealthy weight gain by avoiding sugary drinks.    

Sounds simple? Sure, but communicating this message is just one lever we need to pull to provide the support Australians deserve in order to achieve and maintain a healthy weight.  

The campaign is just one of Cancer Council Victoria’s broader actions aimed at creating healthier and supportive environments.

Yet when the environment we live in promotes poor choices the odds are stacked against us.

Constant barriers to eating well are integrated into our daily lives. From flashy junk food and sugary drink advertisements plastered on trams and point of sale promotions coaxing you to ‘buy one, get one free’ - making a call for greater personal responsibility seems ridiculous.

Educating and supporting individuals using public health campaigns is crucial, but as excess weight and poor diets continue to add enormous strain on the nation’s physical and economic health, it needs to sit within a wider obesity strategy aimed at reversing Australia’s growing obesity epidemic.

For now, with no national healthy weight strategy in place to tackle our enormous problem, the solution basically rests on the individual alone to change their behaviour.

These trends will only escalate if our governments continue to sit back and wait for the problem to fix itself. By 2050, we could see around 1.75 million premature deaths caused by overweight and obesity in people over the age of 20.

The COAG Health Ministers’ recent commitment to develop a national strategy on obesity is an important step forward in tackling this epidemic. While this commitment is welcomed, we look forward to seeing government action to develop, fund and implement a comprehensive strategy across all levels of government in order to make a lasting impact on the health of all Australians.

We are not short of solutions. We have a strong consensus from around 40 public health, community and academic groups who identified eight policy priorities in Tipping the Scales. What’s holding Australia back from slowing the march of obesity is not lack of solutions – we know what needs to be done, it’s more simply a lack of implementation.

A 20 per cent health levy on sugary drinks is just one policy we’ve outlined that could be ticked off. We know it will work to improve diets and reduce the burden of chronic disease in Australia. This could save more than 1,600 Australian lives and raise more than $400 million per year for much-needed obesity prevention initiatives.

Other countries have steamed ahead, prioritising healthy environments by taking similar proactive action.

Following the World Health Organization’s recommendation of a health levy on sugary drinks, the UK acknowledged the policy as an important step in tackling obesity.

Even before its implementation earlier this year the policy resulted in changes with many companies reformulating the amount of added sugar in the drinks they sell.

Mexico introduced a 10 per cent tax on sugary drinks in 2007 which resulted in an 11 per cent drop in consumption; this was higher in low income groups and teens.

If we want to build a healthier generation it is vital that we, as a community, band together and finally grasp the playbook which will create a policy context and society that tips the scales towards healthy weight.