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Rich world eating its way to an early grave

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The obesity epidemic sweeping through the world’s richest countries has left more than half of all adults overweight or obese and shows no sign of abating.

In an alarming assessment, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development has reported that Australia has the fifth highest rate of obesity among its 34 member countries, exceeded only by the United States, Mexico, New Zealand and Hungary.

More than one in every three adults in Mexico, the US and New Zealand are obese, while in Australia the rate is 28.4 per cent – well in excess of the OECD average of 17.9 per cent.

In a particularly worrying development, the OECD found that Australia was one of just a handful of countries – along with Mexico and Switzerland – where waistlines were continuing to expand at a significant pace. By contrast, in Italy, England and the US rates of overweight and obesity have all-but stabilised.

That said, “there is no sign of retrenchment of the [obesity] epidemic,” the OECD intoned in its Obesity Update June 2014, warning that this was likely the harbinger of accelerating health costs and morbidity.

It said that for much of human history increasing weight was associated with better health and longer lives, but “an alarming number of people have now crossed the line beyond which further gains are dangerous”.

The OECD warned that for every extra 15 kilograms above normal weight that people gained, the risk of premature death increased 30 per cent, and obesity was responsible for up to 3 per cent of health spending in most countries (but up to 10 per cent in the US).

In a sobering prospect for the Abbott Government, which has set itself the task of putting health spending on what it considers to be a sustainable trajectory, the OECD has warned that the full impact of the obesity epidemic is yet to be felt: “Costs will rise rapidly in coming years as obesity-related diseases set in”.

Governments confronted with such a serious health issue have adopted a range of measures and tactics. In the US, Medicaid co-payments are waived for patients who meet specific ‘wellness’ targets, while in the UK the Government sets targets and priorities which businesses voluntarily sign up to.

Several countries have looked to taxes, food labelling and advertising regulations to slow weight gain, with varying degrees of success.

In late 2011, Denmark introduced a tax on saturated fats, which saw many shoppers transfer their custom from higher-priced supermarkets to discount stores. The levy was scrapped after a year. In Hungary, a tax on certain food ingredients pushed the cost of some foods up almost 30 per cent, with a consequent plunge in sales, and about half of food manufacturers responded by simply reformulating their product.

Another approach has been to improve food labelling. The UK has introduced a voluntary, front-of-packet traffic light system, and the EU has made information about energy content, fats, sugars, salt and other ingredients compulsory. Australia’s own five-star Healthy Food Rating system was due to begin next month, but has become mired in controversy after a Government staffer who ordered a website for the system to be taken down was forced to resign over links to the food industry.

Marketing unhealthy food to children has also been the focus of action in some countries. Several nations including Slovenia, Iceland, Norway, Turkey and Chile have imposed bans or restrictions on food ads during child programs.

The OECD said the most comprehensive policy action has been taken by the Mexican Government, which has imposed an 8 per cent tax on high-energy food, a levy on soft drinks, food labelling requirements, and a ban on the marketing of junk food on television and radio during child viewing times.

So far, though, evidence on the effect of such measures is only just beginning to emerge, the OECD said.

Adrian Rollins