At least half the women I see on my morning walks have fat bums. And when I ride my bike, I see a lot of male cyclists with fat guts. Between tight tracksuit pants and lycra cycling shirts, they are hard to miss; there are a lot of fat people around.
A Thai lady visiting Australia, the mother-in-law of a friend, came to the conclusion that absolutely everyone in the country is overweight. Compared to Thailand, it is easy to see why — about two-thirds of Australian adults and a quarter of children are overweight or obese. Furthermore, it is getting worse – the number of people with obesity has more than doubled in the past decade, from 2.7 million to 5.8 million. If the trend continues, she will end up being right.
Australia is not alone with this problem. Our rate of obesity is only slightly below that of New Zealand and the US, comparable to Canada’s and slightly above the UK. It is a big problem in the developed world and getting worse.
Notwithstanding efforts by some to normalise fatness, being overweight has multiple health consequences including arthritis, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease and certain types of cancer. The obese also face an increased risk of premature death.
In fact, a recent study has found that obesity is a bigger cause of deaths among middle-aged (45 and over) and old-aged people in Scotland and England than smoking. They were about equal in 2013 but, with increasing rates of obesity and declining rates of smoking, obesity is now more significant.
Although smoking rates are not declining in Australia, obesity rates are going up. If obesity is not already killing more adults in these categories than smoking, it is only a matter of time.
The obvious question is, what is causing it and what can be done about it? Clearly, there is a mismatch between nutrition supplied and nutrition utilised, but what components exactly? Not long ago it was assumed to be too much fat, but opinions have changed. Now we are told it is carbohydrates and, of those, sugar in particular. Indeed, some in the public health lobby insist sugar contributes as much to chronic illness and premature death as tobacco.
If they are right about sugar, the obesity problem looks set to continue unabated. Global consumption of sugar is projected to increase to about 177.8 million tonnes by 2020/2021, up from 172.6 million tonnes in 2018/2019.
If sugar is the new tobacco, with the potential to be even worse than tobacco over the next 50 years, less consumption by overweight people would be in their interests.
The question is, can this be achieved through voluntary means or will it prompt coercion? Must governments intrude on the diets of the people with fat backsides and guts to save them from themselves? And with the problem of expanding waistlines spreading across much of the world, is the problem bigger than any individual government?
Although the World Health Organisation patently failed to help control the spread of coronavirus, maybe they would have more luck with the obesity pandemic which, on any measure, looks to be the most pressing health crisis facing us right now.
But if all the measures adopted to reduce tobacco consumption were applied to sugar, would consumption decline? The evidence suggests the answer is no. Notwithstanding the fact that control measures are now at peak coercion, rates of smoking in Australia have remained unchanged for several years. Moreover, massive tobacco taxes, which make cigarettes in Australia the world’s most expensive, have led to the emergence of a large and growing market for smuggled products run by organised crime.
If there is a lesson to be drawn from tobacco it is that when there is an acceptable alternative, smokers voluntarily quit. This is apparent from the fact that smoking is declining in countries in which vaping is legal and easily available, and is already extremely low in the small number of countries in which snus is available. Neither vaping nor snus are legal in Australia.
Furthermore, these are not a result of regulatory intervention but are due to a combination of educating smokers as to the risks of smoking along with private sector initiatives. Coercion has contributed nothing.
If I am to see fewer fat bums and guts when I do my exercise, the lesson of tobacco is that once people are persuaded that consuming less sugar is a good idea, all the government needs to do is get out of the way of innovators who offer them a satisfactory alternative.
David Leyonhjelm is a former senator for the Liberal Democrats.
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