Doctors disagree on sugar tax to curb obesity

By Sarah Wiedersehn

Sugar has been identified as a big villain when it comes to healthy lifestyles. Photo / 123RF
Sugar has been identified as a big villain when it comes to healthy lifestyles. Photo / 123RF

The obesity epidemic is more complicated than the London Underground. Sugar is as big a villain as 'Darth Vader'. No one is courageous enough to pass laws regulating the food Australians eat.

Those are some of the views expressed by Australian physicians at an anaesthetists conference in Brisbane, where the nation's burgeoning waistline is high on the agenda.

University of Queensland Professor of Endocrinology John Prins believes legislation is "probably" necessary.

"You don't think it will work? Think pool fences, seatbelts etc," he told colleagues at the Australian and New Zealand College of Anaesthetist (ANZCA) annual scientific meeting in Brisbane yesterday.

"Everybody knows it probably should be done, nobody knows how to do it - I certainly don't, and no government is going to rush into it," he said.

A sugar tax is one one option but in Prof Prins' opinion is too "simplistic".

The leading endocrinologist - who sits on a number of committees and boards for the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) - suggested disincentives that would make unhealthy foods more expensive could be another option.

"I think there has to be some form of legislation and of course co-operation between federal and state governments would be helpful," Prof Prins said.

There's no argument between experts that obesity is an increasing problem that is placing a huge burden on the health system.

A third of the adult Australian population is now technically obese, and one in four Australian children aged 2-17 is either overweight or obese.

Dr Eric Janes, a specialist anaesthetist, says it makes "no sense" that the world suddenly and simultaneously became obese 30 years ago.

"Obesity has been around for as long as man has been on the planet, it's part of the human condition," Dr Janes told the meeting.

"In the '70s suddenly there was this kick of obesity in every developed country around the world.

"Fifteen years ago there were 30 per cent more starving people in the world than obese, and now that figure has completely reversed," said Dr Janes.

He suggested sugar was partly to blame.

The biggest risk of any legislation like a sugar tax, is causing personal offence to someone's right to choose, Prof Prins said.

"Some people are just quite happy being fat and don't want anybody to legislate," Prof Prins said.

But Professor David A Scott, ANZCA president, disagrees that people want to be obese and fully supports a tax on sugary products.

"It's a political hot potato of course because there are a lot of conflicting investments in that industry, yet it's clear high carbohydrate loads contribute to childhood obesity which contributes to adult obesity," Prof Scott said.

Obesity was a medical condition, he said.

"People don't choose to be overweight and it should be considered in that way so we address the problem."

As well as legislation, surgery and prevention measures like education of exercise and diet are also necessary, he added.

- AAP

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