Policy makers weigh up the cost of obesity

31 August 2006

Australia's claim to be a healthy outdoor nation is under attack. The deadly combination of junk food and unhealthy lifestyle choices is pushing Australia to the top of the global obesity league, with 68 per cent of men and 53 per cent of women now considered overweight.

The social and economic burdens associated with obesity are well known, but the issue has also started to attract interest from policy makers and lawyers. Later this month the University will host an international conference looking at how the law can intervene, when experts from Australia, America and the UK will discuss what options exist for public health law to tackle obesity and its associated risks, and defend the public's right to an improvement in food quality and control.

The conference is being organised by Roger Magnusson from the Faculty of Law, who says there is an urgent need for viable strategies to bring about an improvement in people's dietary habits and lifestyle choices.

Professor Magnusson said: "Debate about law and obesity tends to be narrowly defined in terms of coercive laws and 'fat taxes' versus personal responsibility and the right of individuals to choose.

"Such generalisations aren't helpful: there is a lot that law might contribute to obesity prevention at different levels."

For example, legislative drivers for a comprehensive response to obesity could begin with structures such as a separate Department of Public Health that is not swamped by the delivery of health services and could forge effective partnerships with other government agencies and the private sector.

At an individual level, Professor Magnusson said, "we need to explore ways to facilitate healthy choices and nudge consumers in the right direction. We also need to protect children, especially as obesity in adolescence increases the risk of obesity and ill-health in adulthood."

He said there had been a lot of discussion about taxing high-fat foods and subsidising fresh and healthier foods as a way of re-balancing diets.

"There may be a case for 'fat taxes' in limited contexts. For example, if business could be nudged towards using oils that are lower in trans fatty acids, in baked goods and fried foods, the community would be winners."

He also suggests that society should tackle the problem of poor food quality in cafes and family restaurants.

"We hear a lot about the importance of personal responsibility and making prudent choices. But how many times have you walked into a restaurant and struggled to find anything healthy to eat on the menu?" he asked. "All restaurant keepers - as an obligatory condition of their licence - should be required by law to provide healthy options for diners and to include added nutritional information about all the standard meals listed on their menus."

More than half the population is expected die prematurely from conditions caused by the terminal effects of excess weight gain such as heart disease, type-2 diabetes, strokes and certain cancers.

The Obesity and Law conference will be held on 28 September in the Law School. One of the sessions will be chaired by Professor Ian Caterson from the School of Human Nutrition and Molecular and Microbial Bisosciences.

For further information, seetheconference website.

Contact: Richard North

Phone: 02 9351 3720