Our obesity issue the 'new smoking'
More than 17 million Australians are now obese or overweight. It is an astonishing number for a country with fewer than 23 million people.
The only Western nations whose populations are fatter are the United States, Greece and New Zealand - but only just. Many health professionals call obesity ''the new smoking'': it has become Australia's top cause of premature death and illness, and the biggest single threat to our public health. Epidemiologists even predict that, if present trends continue, the next generation of Australians will actually have shorter lives than we enjoy today.
The obesity epidemic is frequently regarded as a medical crisis, because our health-care system bears the direct costs of it. Obesity certainly causes severe medical problems: patients with weight-related ailments, such as Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, hypertension and stroke, increasingly strain our hospitals. It is also true, though less common, that medical conditions can cause obesity. A consequence of depression, for example, can be lethargy and overeating, which in turn lead to weight-gain.
With this in mind, the Australian Psychological Society has pitched the idea of subsidising counselling for overweight patients. It proposes that Medicare funds registered psychologists to provide up to 10 ''health-behaviour change'' sessions for people with chronic diseases, at a cost to taxpayers of about $83 a session.
The society believes 10 sessions will change most people's lifestyle enough to reduce their condition's severity, or even to overcome it. It also says such a scheme would save 10 times its modest cost of about $50million to $60million.
Cognitive-behavioural therapy is no quackery: it is a science supported by a strong body of evidence. The society's proposal, if put into effect, would no doubt help some people. The Federal Government should be willing to trial ideas such as this to test just how well they do work. Indeed, Australia's costly obesity epidemic is expanding so swiftly that all preventative measures should be considered. Yet we should not make the mistake of treating obesity as a medical problem, because in most cases it isn't. It is a cultural crisis.
The prevalence of obesity in Australia has more than doubled in just two decades; not because our physiology has suddenly changed, but because our habits, lifestyles and society have. In less than a generation, we have largely stopped walking to destinations in favour of driving. Eating energy-rich take-away meals is no longer a rare treat, but routine. We play physical sports less often, preferring indoor entertainment instead. There are many causes of our growing weight, and overcoming them will be difficult.
Governments can help, as can doctors, and sometimes counsellors, too. But this crisis is not for other people to solve: it's our problem. We must take individual responsibility for the way we live, or be willing to pay the consequences.