No. 182


Stone the crows! Political willpower will fail the fat.

A new study has found that while people understand food is addictive they still assume the obese are responsible for their shape. Even worse, for advocates of the orthodoxy that obesity is an illness, the survey of Australians and Americans rejected “a medicalised approach” to treating it, thus ignoring the answer – which apparently is regulation of advertising, and food taxes.[i]

What really worries the authors is that “the apparent failure of neurobiological explanations of overeating and obesity to alter public views toward obese individuals and the treatment of obesity suggests that these explanations have not yet had the beneficial impacts assumed by their advocates.”

Alternatively, it could be because people in general recognise a correlation between diet and discipline, that people who keep weight off eat less and exercise more than those who don’t.

While the Crows are utterly ignorant of heroin, they know as much as the next bird about hamburgers, particularly the pleasures of a good one.  And they understand the way to avoid their weighty after-effects is to avoid eating them – that and exercise. Just as giving up tobacco, or heroin, comes down to an individual decision to end an addiction so does beating food as a drug.

Which a researcher at the University of Newcastle suggests it is. According to KirrilyPursey, eating food “could trigger feel-good chemicals in the brain such as dopamine, a chemical that is also stimulated by highly addictive drugs including cocaine and methamphetamines.”[ii]

This rather makes a nonsense of the idea that overcoming obesity is about advertising restrictions and food taxes.  Heroin is neither advertised nor cheap and yet addicts are ever with us. And for all the help they need, in the end addicts who stop do so because they want to live clean.

Of course, the state can assist the obese. There is a case for regulating ingredients of packaged food as a public health measure. Nobody much minds fluoride and Australian bakers must use iodised salt (in non-organic bread) to address our national iodine deficiency.[iii] Taxing ingredients rather than a product class as a whole – say sweeteners in colas, rather than fizzy drinks themselves – can cut calories as manufacturers change formula, without making moral judgments about people consuming soft drinks. [iv]

Nor is there anything wrong with labeling foods so people understand exactly what they are consuming – and preferably how much exercise it takes to work off its impact.[v] And before anybody argues that this depends on a mass of variables, pray, why then did God give us apps? [vi]

But taxing fast food as a class to reduce consumption by those overweight is an unjust impost on the thin. And the case against restricting access for some sorts of foods is fraught. There is nothing regulators like more than banning things other people enjoy. As The Economist argues, e-cigarettes provide the nicotine addicted with an infinitely less dangerous hit than they take from tobacco and yet regulators in Europe are intent on restricting access to smokeless smokes. [vii]

So what to do? We could treat the desire to eat more than we need as a disease, which it may well be and leave it to medical science to treat.[viii]  Queue anguish among Finance department officials. As soon as it takes to fry fast food there would be whole new classes of public health subsidies on the Medicare Schedule.

Alternatively, we could encourage people to do something about it themselves because weight loss has benefits way beyond carting about less lard. Exercise does not necessarily lead to weight loss but the health and psychological benefits are assured. A University of Western Australia study found 150 minutes of vigorous exercise a week added two to three years to the life of old blokes who stuck with a 13-year study.[ix]  Exercise is also a sovereign way of dealing with depression.[x]

Given the amount of exercise we collectively get it is amazing we are not sicker and sadder than we are. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, less than 20 per cent of adult Australians do an hour or more physical activity for recreation a day.[xi]

It strikes the Crows that the only responsible answer, certainly in terms of the public purse, is to follow the surveyed commonsense of people who accept that obesity is caused by a medical problem but believe disease sufferers can do something about themselves. The state should encourage everybody to self-medicate on less eating and more exercising.

Because fast food taxes are regressive, encouraging must mean advertising.

If there was ever a case for public interest advertising, obesity is it. And what luck, we have excellent information and examples of what to do thanks to decades of anti-smoking campaigns. There is a substantial literature on what encourages smokers to stop, notably “emotionally evocative ads and ads that contain personalised stories about the effects of smoking.”[xii]

Such as advertisements like the one showing a single mother about to tell her children she has terminal cancer, like the ad where a daughter sits beside her dad’s intensive care bed as he struggles to breathe through a respirator and describes a family picnic, telling him, “You should have been there.”

That obesity renders sufferers sad, sick and takes them from their families earlier than need be is a scary message – and if it does not encourage some people to take responsibility for their own bodies it is hard to imagine what will.

But while Canberra should be making these advertisements, the Crows suspect they won’t. The ABS estimates that two thirds of Australians are obese or overweight, up from 56 per cent in 1995.[xiii]

A serious information campaign suggesting voters should take responsibility for their own lives and lose weight and get fit would take less political willpower than a death wish.


For a bespoke speech, an opinion piece and comms strategy. Call the Crows 0417 469 093



[i] Natalie M Lee, Jayne Lucke, Wayne D Hall, Carla Meurk, Frances M Boyle, Adrian Carter, “Public views on food addiction and obesity: implications for policy and treatment,” Plos One @ recovered on October 12

[ii]Hunter Medical Research Institute, “Researchers sink teeth into food addiction question,” Media release October 11 2013

[iii] Food Standards Australia, “Iodine fortification,” September 2012 @ recovered on October 12

[iv]Zhen Miao, John C Beghin and Helen J Jensen, “Taxing sweets: sweetener input tax or final consumption tax?” Federal Reserve Bank of St Louis, Working Paper 510, July 2010 @ recovered on October 12

[v]NSW Greens, “Healthy foods by choice,” March 22 2011 @ recovered on October 12

[vi]For example, “1o iPhone Apps for counting calories” April 12 2011 @ recovered on October 12

[vii] “Sending the wrong smoke signal, The Economist, September 28

[viii]Andrew Pollack, “A.M.A recognises obesity as a disease,” New York Times, June 18

[ix]University of Western Australia, “Exercise key to a longer, happier life,” September 5 @ recovered on October 11

[x]Felice N Jacka and Michael Berk, “Depression, diet and exercise,” Medical Journal of Australia 4 (2012)

[xi] Australian Bureau of Statistics, “Health Survey: Physical Activity 2011-12,” July 19 @ recovered on October 11

[xii]Sarah J Durkin, Lois Biener and Melanie A Wakefield, “Effects of Different Types of Antismoking Ads on Reducing Disparities in Smoking Cessation Among Socioeconomic Subgroups,” American Journal of Public Health, 99 (12) December 2009, 2217-2223 @ recovered on October 14

[xiii] Australian Bureau of Statistics, “Australian health survey 2011-12, first results: Overweight and obesity,” October 29 2012 @ recovered on October 12