Obesity strategy a 'wasteful failure'
Illustration: Matt Golding.
THE political response to Australia's obesity epidemic has been a ''failure'', and $49 million spent on healthy lifestyle advertising campaigns was a ''waste of taxpayers' money'', a key government adviser claims.
Professor Paul Zimmet, a member of former prime minister Kevin Rudd's preventive health taskforce, says the government's strategy to fight the fat is ''weak and fragmented''.
He says he would not have agreed to be on the taskforce - set up to find ways to reduce the burden of alcohol, tobacco and obesity - if he had known most of its obesity recommendations would be ignored.
In a speech to be delivered at a health summit in Canberra on Monday, Professor Zimmet, director emeritus at Melbourne's Baker IDI Heart and Diabetes Institute, will argue there is no political will to reduce obesity.
While congratulating the government for its action on tobacco control, he claims it has taken the ''easy option'' on obesity, with ineffective social marketing campaigns.
''The government seems to not have the stomach for obesity prevention. What is being done at present is fragmented and weak and does not constitute a serious attempt to tackle the problem,'' Professor Zimmet said.
''This is one of the biggest drivers of disease - it drives type two diabetes, arthritis, heart disease and certain cancers. It's a huge load on the community so it's very disappointing there is no national effective strategy, despite the taskforce making it very clear that it was the whole package that was important, not isolated bits and pieces.''
In 2009, the federal government's preventive health taskforce proposed measures to combat obesity, including increased taxes on unhealthy food, a ban on junk food marketing to children, exercise programs in schools and workplaces and an urban planning overhaul to boost physical activity.
But Professor Zimmet said the measures had not been adopted and money had been squandered on social marketing campaigns such as the ''Swap It, Don't Stop It'' and ''Measure Up'' healthy lifestyle campaigns.
''To spend more than $40 million on social marketing campaigns without having an integrated strategy is a waste of money. It's achieved very little because campaigns like that can't be done in isolation without addressing better parks, … improved food access, addressing indigenous diabetes and heart disease rates. So really the whole approach to the problem has been a failure.''
Fellow preventive health taskforce member Mike Daube, director of the Public Health Advocacy Institute, is also disappointed by the government's lack of action on obesity.
''With obesity, we are where we were with tobacco about 50 years ago. We're fat, we're getting fatter and the junk food industry is immensely powerful, so strong public education needs to be allied with tough measures, such as dealing with food advertising or food formulation,'' Professor Daube said. ''Having said that, the government has been sensational on tobacco and you can understand them not wanting to take on every major industry at once.''
Professor Zimmet will be among a range of speakers at Monday's summit, ''Obesity: Changing the Rhetoric, Solutions for the Future'', organised by newly formed public health lobby group Obesity Australia.
A spokesman for the Department of Health said figures show childhood obesity rates have stabilised.
''The success Australia has experienced in reducing tobacco has been the result of 30 years of co-ordinated effort. A similar long-term view is required to address obesity,'' he said.