Obesity and the Political Agenda: Would you Like Lies with That? (Part 2)

Last week I argued that obesity needs to be on the political agenda, discussed the reasons why it had so far eluded the political spotlight and emphasised the conceptual and practical problems of treating the problem as a crisis of individual responsibility instead of a social problem warranting a policy-based response.


This week I’m attempting to build on that argument by proffering up some ways in which a responsible government could respond to the problem, noting of course that any response will need to engage with – and in all likelihood challenge – stakeholders right across the board. Federal, state and local governments, major food companies, television networks, primary and secondary schools and the everyday Australian all have a part to play in making this change.

Let’s get started shall we?

#1 The introduction of nutrition as a compulsory unit in Primary and Secondary School

We learn English so that we can communicate with one another; math so we can solve numerical problems and do our taxes. Everything else seems pretty up to student choice. But why make these units compulsory? Well, because every individual needs to know the basics of literacy and numeracy to survive. Can’t the same be said about the basics of nutrition?

Think about it.

The average Australian has three meals a day plus at least one snack[1]. That’s four times a day an individual makes a decision on what to eat. 28 times a week; 120 times a month; 1460 times a year; Roughly 116,800 times in a lifetime.

You’re telling me we shouldn’t be teaching our kids how to make those choices responsibly? We shouldn’t imbue in them a robust idea about both the properties of the food they are eating and the long-term consequences of consumption? We shouldn’t impart onto them the ability to see through the bullshit they’re being sold by McDonalds and Coco Cola – who actively prey on children’s ignorance?

Education is the fishing analogy writ large. Give an obese man lap-band surgery and he will lose a large amount of weight over a short to medium period of time. Give a man the education, from a young age, regarding healthy calorie consumption, the importance of maintaining a balanced lifestyle and the health consequences of excessive sodium and sugar intake and odds are he will never become obese in the first place.

So what exactly do I propose should be taught in schools?

I think at a rudimentary level, every individual should be given a basic idea of what a healthy calorie intake (accounting for energy outpoint through exercise) constitutes based on their age, height, weight and metabolism. In my case it’s somewhere round the 2500 mark, for others it will be more, for others it will be less. This would cost almost nothing. Teachers could put on a PowerPoint presentation two or three times a year, they could even make it into homework with the kids having to formulate a meal and exercise plan sticking within their calorie limit.

Next could be a cooking class built around teaching children to make nutritious and healthy foods – a Jamie Oliver kind of deal at a macro level. This wouldn’t need to be every week, or even every month. A few times a year would suffice. The key would be a consistent emphasis on the importance of good nutrition and lifestyle and the implications of deviating from these benchmarks on both their health and life expectancy.

There have been positive steps to ensure school canteens stock healthy products, sometimes at the exclusion of their junk counterparts, and in many schools there is food tech elective which touches on nutritional choices.

But these initiatives by themselves have not gotten the job done. We need to be more aggressive. And what better starting point is there than education? It’s cost-effective, unlikely to face any real political opposition and could be implemented almost overnight with Federal and State cooperation.

All in favour?

food pyramid

#2 Tax the eff out of soft drinks

The average (375ml) can of soft drink possesses 140 calories and 40 grams of sugar (equivalent to 10 teaspoons of sugar)[2]. It contains phosphoric acid, which interferes with the body’s ability to absorb calcium and can lead to osteoporosis, cavities and bone softening[3]. Diet soft drink is even worse because it contains aspartame which increases the risk of metabolic syndrome, which itself causes belly fat, high blood sugar and raised cholesterol[4]. Fruit drinks are also seriously harmful, often containing more sugar than soft drink (I know, right?!); in many cases containing less than 1% of actual fruit juice and manufacturers are far more active in advertising its products directly towards children[5]. Drinking a can of soft drink a day without relative decrease in energy consumption or increase in energy output will account for a weight gain of 6.4kgs per year, and increasing soft drink consumption is one of the leading causes of obesity, diabetes and heart disease[6]. It is estimated that soft drink alone took 180,000 lives world-wide in 2013[7].
Now brace yourself for some home-truths.

Fact 1: The average Australian drinks over 80 litres of soft drink per year[8]. As a country that’s somewhere in the vicinity of 1.5 billion litres[9].

Fact 2: This cost us around about 2.1 billion dollars[10] – double what the Abbott Government have withdrawn from our foreign aid budget in 2015-16[11].

Fact 3: The soft drink market is predicted to increase by up to 7% by 2018[12].


The Cancer Council, Diabetes Australia and the Heart Foundation of Australia are all pushing for this move.[13] A younger Tony Abbott – then Health Minister – appeared to agree with them in 2007[14]. It worked for cigarettes, alco-pops and (despite what most Liberals claim) carbon.

So tell me, what do we have to lose?

Consider the worst case scenario – people continue to buy soft drinks at the inflated price without any real decrease in consumption. The government will still make hundreds of millions of dollars from the tax which can then be used to support and develop other health initiatives that attack the issue from a different angle. Subsidise the fresh fruit and vegetable industry; primary school sporting club; gym memberships for low income individuals etc. You could invest in an incentives scheme for food corporations to bring out healthier products. The list goes one.

In the long term a broader (and far more complicated) tax could be imposed on junk food in general as part of a long-term restructuring of the food economy. In the short term however I think a soft-drink tax is the most plausible starting point.

Make it happen, parliamentary overlords.


#3 Introduce Advertising Restrictions and Ramp up Anti-Junk Food Campaigns

This last suggestion is probably the most important and, unsurprisingly, the one most likely to encounter opposition from food companies, proponents of free-market liberalism and television networks.

With a Liberal government, it’s also the policy response least likely to succeed – but let’s ignore all that for the minute. I’m still living with the hope that by 2016, the Australian people have stopped drinking lighter fluid the day of the election and voted in some adults that are at least semi-capable of forming a coherent sentence (or policy measure for that matter).

The crux of the proposal would be to introduce multifaceted new advertising laws that restrict when and how many junk-food advertisements can be displayed in a given area, television network or website; impose plain packaging on popular junk food items like Big Macs and soft drinks; compel supermarkets to display health food items more prominently and at a cheaper price; and run more ads vilifying junk food and promoting an active lifestyle.

It may sound drastic, but so are the following facts:

Australia has the highest number of food adverts in the world. They take up on average 34% of commercial time on TV – the vast majority of those being for junk food – and are most prevalent between the hours of 6-9PM when children are most likely to watch television.[15]
50% of all supermarket purchases are made impulsively[16]. Fifty effing percent. So when 11 out of 12 sale items at the front of the aisles at my local Coles consist of potato chips, chocolate biscuits, soft drink and Cadbury favourites, consumer ‘choices’ are significantly circumscribed. Despite the rhetoric around ‘consumer freedom’, it’s the geography of a supermarket – not people’s genuine desires – that it most determinative in terms of what people purchase. Display more healthy foods = more people will purchase healthy foods.
In contrast the propaganda that keeps popping up on Facebook fitness pages, eating healthy does cost significantly more than eating junk. A world survey concluded that eating healthy costs around $550 a year more – that’s $1.50 a day – than eating “unhealthy”[17], and in Australia the costs of healthy staples – milk, bread, eggs and some meats – have risen in cost 20 per cent above inflation, while soft drinks, edible fats and oils and cakes and biscuits have dropped between 10 and 20% below inflation[18]. This is where all the cash from the soft drink tax might come in handy – to ensure this division is reversed.
Plain packaging has been one of the most successful components of the governmental anti-smoking campaign, reducing the rate of smokers per capita by around 3.4%.[19] The anti-drug advertisements in the US’ war on drugs have also been extremely effective in discouraging drug use in teenagers – certainly more so than putting drug users in jail.
Need I say more?

plain packaging

Obesity is a social problem that’s getting worse. It warrants a comprehensive response involving more than what I have outlined above, lest our children grow up rounder and unhappier than the ones that preceded them

The most important step to addressing this crisis however is yet to be taken. And that is a concrete admission, made by both the Liberal government and their (god-willingly) 2016 successors, the Labor Party, that obesity is actually a major problem and priority and that it is their obligation to actually work on a comprehensive solution. State governments have also to get on board, but the initiative must be top-down.

Until that happens, I’m afraid all our hopes ride on Jamie Oliver and the Biggest Loser.

Somehow I doubt that will be enough.



[1]Nutrition Australia. (2009). How Many Meals Per Day?. Available: http://www.nutritionaustralia.org/sites/default/files/How%20many%20meals%20per%20day_Printable%20Detailed%20Summary_0.pdf. Last accessed 16th December 2014.

[2] Wellness Mama. (2011). Ten Reasons to Avoid Drinking Soda. Available: http://wellnessmama.com/379/reasons-to-avoid-soda/. Last accessed 16th December 2014.

[3] Wellness Mama. (2011). Ten Reasons to Avoid Drinking Soda. Available: http://wellnessmama.com/379/reasons-to-avoid-soda/. Last accessed 16th December 2014.

[4] Wellness Mama. (2011). Ten Reasons to Avoid Drinking Soda. Available: http://wellnessmama.com/379/reasons-to-avoid-soda/. Last accessed 16th December 2014.

[5] Perry, M. (2012). Fruit Drink Facts Beverage Companies Don’t Want You To Know. Available: http://www.builtlean.com/2012/01/17/fruit-drink-facts/. Last accessed 16th December 2014.

[6] Harvard School of Public Health. (2012). Sugary Drinks and Obesity Fact Sheet. Available: http://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/sugary-drinks-fact-sheet/. Last accessed 17th December 2014.

[7] Wade, L. (2013). Sugary drinks linked to 180,000 deaths worldwide. Available: http://edition.cnn.com/2013/03/19/health/sugary-drinks-deaths/. Last accessed 16th December 2014.

[8] Collier, K. (2014). Australians swap ‘toxic’ high-sugar soft drinks for diet versions . Available: http://www.heraldsun.com.au/news/australians-swap-toxic-high-sugar-soft-drinks-for-diet-versions/story-fni0fiyv-1227134854739. Last accessed 16th December 2014.

[9] Heart Foundation. (2013). Time to Rethink Sugary Drinks. Available: http://www.heartfoundation.org.au/news-media/Media-Releases-2013/Pages/time-rethink-sugary-drinks.aspx. Last accessed 16th December 2014.

[10] Heart Foundation. (2013). Time to Rethink Sugary Drinks. Available: http://www.heartfoundation.org.au/news-media/Media-Releases-2013/Pages/time-rethink-sugary-drinks.aspx. Last accessed 16th December 2014.

[11] Medhora, S. (2014). Foreign aid slashed by $3.7bn in Myefo, taking total Coalition cuts to $11bn . Available: http://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2014/dec/15/foreign-aid-slashed-by-37bn-in-myefo-taking-total-coalition-cuts-to-11bn. Last accessed 16th December 2014.

[12] ‘Marketline Industry Profile (2014) Soft Drinks in Australia: September 2014’ , Soft Drinks Industry Profile: Australia, pp. 1-39,

[13] Macdonald, A. (2013). Call for tax on sugary soft drinks. Available: http://www.abc.net.au/news/2013-01-17/call-for-tax-on-sugary-soft-drinks/4468924. Last accessed 16th December 2014.

[14] Lesley Russell. (2014). Tackling obesity will help reduce budget fat. Available: http://www.smh.com.au/comment/tackling-obesity-will-help-reduce-budget-fat-20140909-10eaci.html. Last accessed 6th December 2014.

[15] Roberts, M, Pettigrew, S, Chapman, K, Quester, P, & Miller, C (2014), ‘Children’s exposure to food advertising: an analysis of the effectiveness of self-regulatory codes in Australia’, Nutrition And Dietetics, 71, 1, pp. 35-40, FSTA – Food Science and Technology Abstracts

[16] Costa, L. (2014). Supermarkets: contributing to obesity? . Available: http://www.thefoodcoach.com.au/articles/?ArticleID=1540. Last accessed 16th December 2014.

[17] Polis, C. (2013). Eating Healthy vs. Unhealthy Will Cost You $550 More Per Year, Study Reveals. Available: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/12/05/eating-healthy-vs-unhealthy_n_4383633.html. Last accessed 16th December 2014.

[18] Burns, C. (2008). The rising cost of healthy foods. Available: http://www.abc.net.au/news/2008-10-15/the-rising-cost-of-healthy-foods/542604. Last accessed 16th December 2014.

[19] Currow, D. (2014). Why plain packaging is reducing the number of smokers in Australia. Available: http://www.smh.com.au/comment/why-plain-packaging-is-reducing-the-number-of-smokers-in-australia-20140624-zsjt9.html. Last accessed 16th December 2014.

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