RACHEL BROWNE SMH
July 18, 2010
OBESITY is set to overtake smoking as the leading cause of premature death and illness in Australia, and experts are calling on government authorities to take the same tough stand on the weight crisis as it did on tobacco.
After years of sharp decline, deaths from cardiovascular disease have increased, health advocates saying excess weight might be to blame.
More than 60 per cent of the adult population is overweight or obese, and weight-related health problems are estimated to cost the economy more than $60 billion a year, twice as much as smoking.
”It is a worrying trend and one that is hard to confront,” said Professor Kerin O’Dea, head of the Sansom Institute for Health Research at the University of South Australia.”Food manufacturers are powerful lobbyists. But if the various health departments can take on the tobacco companies, they really need to confront the food manufacturers.”I think the way the tobacco control has been managed is a good model for the food industry. It shows that regulation which is properly enforced can be effective.”
But as federal, state and local governments consider a range of options to stem the tide, experts fear it may be too little, too late.
he Western Australia Burden of Disease Study released in April revealed that obesity posed a bigger threat than tobacco use, accounting for 8.7 per cent of all disease, ahead of 6.5 per cent for smoking. The results are expected to be similar for the rest of the Australian population.
The number of smokers has decreased by more than a quarter over the past 15 years, but the number of overweight or obese people has increased by more than 50 per cent in the same period.
Based on current trends, it is believed almost 75 per cent of the population will be overweight or obese by 2025, according to a National Preventative Health Taskforce report.
The Heart Foundation has been alarmed to see an increase in cardiovascular disease deaths, up from 46,626 in 2007 to 48,456 in 2008.
”CVD has been declining sharply since the 1960s and that’s largely due to reduced rates of smoking and better ways to to treat high cholesterol and high blood pressure,” Heart Foundation NSW chief executive Tony Thirlwell said.
”Unfortunately, that decline has plateaued and for the first time in about 20 or 30 years, we are seeing an increase in cardiovascular disease. That is of great concern as it may mean that, because people are getting fatter, rates of cardiovascular disease are going up.”
He agrees that strict measures applied to tobacco control could be applied to weight control, bringing better regulation of food labelling and incentives to exercise.
”That’s going to require the support of governments, workplaces, schools and so on,” he said. ”Obesity is quite simple in a sense. It depends on how much food you take in and how much energy you expend.
”So we need people to be more physically active and eat less for obesity to decrease. Now that’s easier said than done, of course.”
The federal government is reviewing food labelling laws and policy with a report back to the Council of Australian Governments due next year.
One move under consideration is compulsory signs at fast-food outlets listing the energy, salt, saturated fat and trans fat content of each meal or food product.
The Victorian government has already approved the move. A spokeswoman for the NSW Food Authority said it was waiting for a national approach to go ahead before following suit.
Another proposal is for food manufacturers to adopt a simpler way of listing a food’s nutritional content through the so-called traffic-light system, in which foods are given a green, amber or red health rating.
A survey by consumer advocacy group Choice and the Cancer Council found that consumers supported the traffic-light system.
”Consumers need to be able to identify health products to make educated choices,” Choice senior food policy officer Clare Hughes said. ”Having the traffic-light system on the front of the pack would give them information at a glance which they currently don’t have.”
The Australian Food and Grocery Council is opposed to traffic-light labelling. It believes the current daily intake guide is sufficient.
The NSW Minister for Health, Carmel Tebbutt, said obesity statistics were compelling and the state government had already introduced a number of measures, including educational programs about nutrition and exercise, to combat the problem.
”Governments cannot tackle obesity alone – it requires a whole community effort to make sure we eat nutritiously and exercise more,” Ms Tebbutt said.
A number of local councils in NSW have already moved against the use of trans fats by fast-food chains. Gosford, Waverley, Manly and Kogarah have banned the substance, which has been linked to heart disease.
Several US states have mandated against trans fats and President Barack Obama has supported a move to put nutritional information about food on menus and menu boards.
”The US government is treating obesity like an epidemic because that’s exactly what it is,” Professor O’Dea said.
”It’s time Australia took the same approach. The obesity crisis is not looming. The crisis is already here.”