SYDNEY, Australia — Hundreds of thousands of Australians will die unnecessarily over the next few years simply for being too fat.
Obesity has become the single biggest threat to public health in this country of 22 million.
Recent research by the Western Australia public health department shows that obesity has overtaken tobacco as the leading preventable cause of disease in that state and health experts have warned the data will be reflected across the country once it is carried out by other public health departments.
It is a hard fact to swallow given that health experts warned the government of a looming ‘‘obesity epidemic’’ more than a decade ago but little action was taken beyond convening a few talk fests on the issue.
Obesity as a cause of illness and premature death has doubled in just six years, accounting for 8.7 percent of all disease in the state in 2006, according to the WA research published this month. Smoking accounts for 6.5 percent.
The data paints a dire picture for the population and the public purse over the next 20 years.
At least 140 Australians die prematurely every day from an obesity-related disease, amounting to more than 50,000 people a year, according to the non-profit group Obesity Prevention Australia.
It took nearly half a century to discourage people killing themselves with smoking — the latest Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development figures show the percentage of adults who smoke daily has halved from a rate of 35 percent in 1983 to 17 percent in 2007. But while Australia is a world leader in winning the war on tobacco, it does not have the luxury of time to arrest the dramatic escalation of obesity rates.
According to the latest nationwide data from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW), the prevalence of overweight and obesity among Australians aged 18 and over rose from 56 percent to 61 percent. The prevalence of diagnosed diabetes in Australia, based on self-reported information, almost tripled between 1990 and 2008.
Health experts say if government and individuals do not make hard decisions, such as introducing a so-called fat tax on high-fat and high-sugar foods and banning junk food advertising to children, Australians may see their life expectancy decrease for the first time.
“On the basis of present trends we can predict that by the time they reach the age of 20 our kids will have a shorter life expectancy than earlier generations simply because of obesity … and that’s an appalling legacy to leave our kids,” said professor Mike Daube, the president of the Public Health Association of Australia.
Daube, also the deputy chairman of the government’s National Preventative Health Taskforce, said “just like the U.S., obesity has crept up on us and we’ve been incredibly complacent.”
About 60 percent of Australian adults and about a quarter of children are overweight or obese.
“Americans are the world champions [for obesity] but we’re up there on the podium,” Daube said. “We’re getting fat and we’ll soon be as fat as Americans.”
Experts are now asking what more could have been done and who or what is responsible.
Access Economics estimates the total financial cost to Australia of obesity rose from $3.7 billion in 2005 to $8.2 billion in 2008.
This figure balloons to $58.2 billion when indirect costs such as lost productivity and quality of life are included.
The tripling of the rate of diabetes in the past 20 years is mostly attributed to excessive weight gain, dubbed "diabesity." Type 2 diabetes can lead to renal failure and blindness.
“It’s not just deaths, it’s condemning people to a lifetime of ill health," said Tim Gill, principal researcher at the Boden Institute of Obesity, Nutrition and Exercise at Sydney University. "Diabetes used to be a condition in 60-year-olds and 70-year-olds and now we’re seeing it in 30-year-olds because they’re seriously overweight.”
Gill says a whole-of-government approach is needed to fix the problem — not just health, but transport, roads and agriculture.
‘‘Everything is working against you in the same way that it was so hard to give up smoking. Everyone smoked, they were relatively cheap, they were readily available, in your face in displays at shops and pubs and they were marketed heavily, like chocolate is today, as a reward,’’ Gill said.
“We’re becoming more and more sedentary. Our work environment is almost totally sedentary now, our leisure time pursuits are mostly sedentary. Food, particularly high-fat high-sugar foods are much, much cheaper in relative terms now than they’ve ever been and we have a higher income.”
We have also become “immune” to being overweight, he said.
A remedy also lies in a dramatic cultural shift by individuals.
“People really don’t want to actually change very much because it’s about doing hard things. It’s about eating less and it’s about doing more," Daube said. "Modern society is built for the motor car and it’s built for big portions.”
He said a government facing “hundreds of thousands of preventable deaths’’ needed to stand up to large manufacturing and advertising groups.
“If you thought the tobacco industry was powerful, look out for the junk food industry,” he said.
“In terms of government over the past two decades you’d probably give them one out of 10 for action.”
“If we were talking about preventing plane crashes or various kinds of disasters, we’d want governments to be 10 out of 10 and this is a disaster area. If we don’t act now we’re going to catch up with the States and that would be a catastrophe.”
Numerous taskforces have recommended better urban planning to make walking and cycling easier as well as bans on junk food ads during sporting matches, to no avail.
“Kids are being driven to school and any reductions on junk food promotion are voluntary codes,” Daube said.
A recent review by the health association of junk food advertising during television sport found the logo was visible 75 percent of the time, he said. “The producers and manufacturers are behaving outrageously.”
He praised the director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Thomas Frieden, for last year calling for a soda tax and would like to see the same in Australia.