WITH the Olympics and Paralympics fresh in our memories and plenty of excitement here in Canberra about the Raiders’ NRL finals campaign, I’m sure I haven’t been alone in considering the irony in the hours we spend sedentary watching elite sport – while the time we spend actually being active decreases and our weight increases.An alarming 61 per cent of Australians are now overweight or obese. Canberrans fare better than the national average, the new 2012 ACT Chief Health Officer’s report shows almost 16 per cent of our kindergarten children and 53 per cent of adults are overweight or obese.
Obesity is no longer an individual problem. When more than half our community is overweight or obese, it becomes a social problem and political leadership is necessary.
Overweight and obesity is not a cosmetic problem. This is not about how one looks, rather it is about what fat does to one’s health. The highest cost to our community is premature death and disability. Then there is the cost of lost productivity, the burden on the health system and the financial cost of health services. Health expenditures are also growing at a greater rate than the growth in general services in our community due to a population that is growing in numbers and in waistlines.
Carrying too much weight places individuals at risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, high blood pressure and musculoskeletal disease. Cardiovascular disease is responsible for one third of all deaths in the ACT. About 7 per cent of our population has diabetes, with current trends suggesting this figure will increase by 50 per cent by 2020. Obesity also increases the risk of some common cancers such as colon and breast cancer, as well as increasing the rate of asthma in overweight children. In addition to the loss of healthy years of life, about 70 per cent of health care expenditure is currently directed towards the management of chronic conditions. More nurses, doctors and allied health professionals are needed to treat these conditions. We require specialist equipment such as bariatric beds, bariatric ambulances and lifting devices in our hospitals.
It alarms me to hear experts say that this will be the first generation of children whose life expectancy is likely to be shorter than that of their parents.
Campaigns over many years providing us with information about what to eat, how much to eat and the need to move do not seem to have worked. We know we are supposed to eat more fruit and veggies, drink water, limit juices, soft drinks, sweets and alcohol, and limit our screen-based activities. Despite this, obesity rates have continued to climb with Australia now one of the heaviest OECD nations.
We are at a point in time with obesity that we were with tobacco a generation ago and perhaps the time has passed for gentle persuasion. The time has come, for example, to step in and help our schools make the healthy choice, to drink water, easier and the unhealthy choice, a sugary drink, harder. I have pledged to do this, if re-elected, by installing water bottle refill stations at any Canberra school that agrees to end the sale of sugary drinks.
Some jurisdictions are going to what some would argue are extreme measures, taking choice away from their citizens. New York City is one of them. Mayor Michael Bloomberg recently moved to ban supersize soft drinks, drawing the support of some nutritionists and obesity specialists, but leaving others crying out “nanny state”. While I offer no critique of the merits of Mayor Bloomberg’s particular proposal, I do support action at the political level to deal with the obesity epidemic.
As a Government we want to do our bit by making it easier for people to make healthy choices. We have commenced work on a whole of government approach to tackling this epidemic. While our health budget currently bears the brunt of the obesity epidemic, obesity is more than just a health problem, and it requires a solution that involves almost every aspect of government. Certainly obesity impacts my work as Health Minister, but in my role as Chief Minister and Minister for Territory and Municipal Services there is plenty to do to address obesity – to get people out of their cars and on to buses and bikes for example. My ministerial colleagues – particularly in education and planning – will also play their part in a war on obesity with $300,000 allocated to develop the ACT’s first healthy weight action plan, which will also be developed in partnership with the non-government sector. This will provide our city with one document which we can all sign on to to begin the long, hard work to reduce the incidence of people who are overweight or obese.
It’s also becoming an issue in our forthcoming Territory election. My party has committed to taking sugary drinks out of schools and to a “zero growth” policy designed to make this the peak of the obesity epidemic.
Solving these big issues will be a marathon rather than a sprint. It has taken 20 years with tobacco control measures to see the promising results today. It will not be something the community will be able to measure us against in six months, a year, or even four years from now. It has taken several decades to reach this point and it will take a generation to turn it around. Let’s make this generation the one that starts the process.
Katy Gallagher is ACT Chief Minister, Minister for Health and Minister for Territory and Municipal Services.