Saturday, July 29, 2006

Australia: Political opportunism drives mania about incorrect food

Federal and state politicians debating a serious health concern this week could find themselves in decidedly unhealthy disagreement. Regrettably, obesity has become a political issue. The ever-present danger is that ends can be claimed to justify means, however unreasonable, unwarranted and undemocratic. Today, a group of state health ministers will seek restrictions on children's TV advertising of products judged overly high in fat, salt or sugar. The federal Health Minister, Tony Abbott, is expected to counter that it isn't a proper response to a problem of personal and parental responsibility.

Following Abbott's announcement last week of a ministerial taskforce on obesity, the health ministers' conference is attracting international attention, not so much in anticipation of a pointer to social policy as in assessing Australia's contribution to the politicisation of fat people.

Australian advertisers have lobbied against such an outcome since the earliest recognition of worrisome obesity trends. They have consistently - and persistently - sought to be part of a politically neutral response to something they see as not of their making, but as a whole-of-community problem requiring an all-of-community solution. Action to date, including new rules for advertising to children and a $10 million healthy lifestyle advertising campaign, will be extended this week with the tabling of a code of conduct for all food and beverages marketing communications. It's a big call but the advertising, marketing and media sectors want to be seen as the responsible contributors to the community they believe themselves to be.

But a minority of members of that community - within government bureaucracies as well as without - have persuaded some politicians that food and beverage manufacturers and marketers, together with their evil allies in the advertising and media sectors, are conspiring to kill off the very consumers who are their reasons for being. That the argument does not make a lot of sense has not dissuaded the deluded any more than their knowledge of Quebec, where a 25-year ban on advertising to children has resulted in no appreciable difference in obesity rates from other Canadian provinces. In fact, the children of Quebec have experienced a greater weight gain in the past decade than their provincial neighbours.

It's a fair comment that many claiming to be campaigning in the cause of childhood obesity have lost sight of the health objective, and have become focused on some sort of political victory over television commercials. In truth, there is as much research excusing advertising as a factor in obesity as there is accusing it. The response of one group of academic researchers linked to the anti-advertising lobby has been to simply assume a link, and build a case for advertising restrictions from there.

As complex as it is as a health problem, obesity may simply be an unforeseen consequence of the lifestyle change brought about by a world war that created a norm of two-income families, new drives for technological advancement and individual affluence, less need for physical activity and more demand for processed, packaged and convenience foods. But arguing whether Adolf Hitler is more or less to blame than John Logie Baird or Alexander Graham Bell will not do any more to reverse obesity trends over the next generation than considering it as a political rather than a health priority.


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