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Wednesday, 25 September 2002
Page: 4916


Senator BARNETT (6:54 PM) —I rise to speak on the issues of obesity, diabetes and fast food in Australia and to say that Australians are getting fatter. Fifty-five per cent of Australians are overweight or obese, and childhood obesity has nearly trebled in the last 10 years. Obesity leads to diabetes, heart disease, cancer and the vicious circle of a sedentary lifestyle. We have seriously unhealthy habits and refuse to change. The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare recently released a paper noting that 7.5 million Australians over the age of 25 years are overweight or obese and that there has been a significant increase in the proportions of overweight or obese Australians over the last 20 years. Recent analysis of data from the 1995 survey showed that 19 to 23 per cent of Australian children aged two to eight years are overweight or obese, depending on age. The number of overweight and obese children aged 7 to 15 years almost doubled between 1985 and 1995. In 1985, 10.7 per cent of boys and 11.8 of girls were overweight or obese while, in 1995, 20 per cent of boys and 21.5 per cent of girls were overweight or obese.

In May this year, the Hon. Larry Anthony MP, Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, released the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare's report, Australia's children: their health and wellbeing 2002. He advised:

The report shows:

24 per cent of children aged 12-14 years had consumed alcohol in the week prior to the survey;

29 per cent of boys and 23 per cent of girls aged 12-15 years have taken an illicit drug at least once;

15 per cent of boys and 14.4 per cent of girls aged 4-12 years have a number of emotional and/or behavioural problems; and,

Death rates for indigenous infants were three times higher than for other Australian children.

He said:

Childhood obesity is getting worse. While most children aged 2-14 are of an acceptable weight, 18 per cent of boys and 22 per cent of girls are overweight or obese.

This is totally unacceptable and parents have a responsibility to ensure their children have a well balanced diet and regular exercise. Not only will overweight and obese children have serious health concerns later in life, they may not be able to fully participate economically and socially.

I congratulate the Hon. Larry Anthony on his comments, on the release of that report and on his efforts to highlight these concerns and problems for all Australians; not just Australian children, but Australian families.

Tomorrow or the day after, a study will be released with regard to the cost of diabetes in Australia. I predict that it will be a very significant cost in terms of this particular epidemic. Diabetes affects one million Australians. Five hundred thousand people are actually diagnosed with diabetes, and a further 500,000 are undiagnosed with type 2 diabetes. About 100,000 of the million Australians with diabetes have type 1, or insulin dependent, diabetes. If those who are undiagnosed are not found, they are likely to have very serious complications affecting their health at a much earlier age than is necessary. These complications include kidney problems, eyesight problems, amputation problems and a whole range of health problems that are very serious indeed. This particular study will highlight the cost. It is the first major study in this area that has been undertaken. I hope that it really jerks Australians into gear in terms of highlighting the importance and adverse effects of this disease on the Australian community and the need to identify the one in two Australians who have diabetes but do not know it. It is a problem, and we need to do something about it.

In regard to the health problems caused by fast food and obesity, I attended a conference in the USA in June and I also attended the Joslin Diabetes Center in Boston, which is the largest research institution for diabetes in the world, and I learnt a number of things. Like our American cousins, nearly half of all Australian deaths are preventable or can be postponed by effective public health practices. That is a staggering figure and I was quite shocked when I learnt it at the conference put on by the Harvard School of Public Health. What are we doing about it in Australia? Not much. What can we do? In terms of fast food companies, I believe they could become the tobacco companies of tomorrow. They need health warnings on junk food packaging which highlight the medical and lifestyle risks of excessive consumption otherwise advertising and marketing that encourages poor lifestyle habits will eventually be at risk of litigation. I am suggesting to these corporate giants that pre-emptive action is the best way to avoid future litigation and poor health outcomes.

We all enjoy the food that we eat. Even so, corporate interests should not be encouraging people, and particularly children, to be enslaved by their biological instincts. As an intelligent species, we can use knowledge obtained by scientists and nutritionists to enhance our lives and lengthen our life expectancy. We have been sucked into this vortex in the 21st century where we have videos, computers and the Internet and are getting sucked into a sedentary lifestyle. When I was in primary school, there was a regular exercise regime. Unfortunately many schools in Australia today do not have such a regime. We are focused on an academic outcome at the expense of a good healthy lifestyle. That is a cause for concern. We are not nurturing the education of our children, who are forced daily to choose from a smorgasbord in many cases of junk food and tuck shop treats regardless of the interests of their immediate nutrition or even their long-term health. Rather than receiving any encouragement to eat a healthy balance of foods, it appears that our children's growing social ability to purchase foods for themselves and to influence parents' purchases are instead being exploited by corporate food interests using aggressive advertising strategies.

Lessons have been learnt and are being learnt from overseas. I draw the Senate's attention to two lessons in particular. In France, McDonald's is advertising the message: `Don't eat too much of our food.' In the US, the fast food companies have joined together in supporting a multimillion education campaign saying: `Eat a balanced diet and exercise regularly.' I congratulate them on such a public education campaign. It makes sense. It is a good message for our children and for us. Fast food companies should embark on a public education campaign like that in Australia. Primarily it should highlight the benefits of a balanced diet and regular exercise as well as highlighting the dangers of excessive consumption of their product. After all, such a lifestyle is the single most effective preventative health measure that a person can take. The campaign should also actively inform the public of both the nutritional value of the food as well as the long-term health risks of eating such food on a day-by-day basis.

Is there any risk in eating fast food? You had better believe it. Ralph Nader, the US consumer advocate, called the McDonald's double cheeseburger a `weapon of mass destruction'. If this seems a bit over the top, perhaps we should look at the nutritional information on these types of products. A Harvard University study has demonstrated a link between diet, exercise and cancer. A minimal amount of walking and eating 25 grams of fibre a day can significantly reduce a cancer risk. We ignore that advice at our own peril. Nearly one in four children aged 10 to 14 are either overweight or obese already, as I have mentioned earlier. The future health of these children looks grim. Not only should Australians recognise that children's bodies are still developing but also that lifelong habits are formed in early years.

The intake of salt, excessive sugar, fat and additives such as caffeine and MSG are all directly responsible for many chronic and untreatable diseases. Nutritionists and doctors know it; fast food chains and processors know it. And lawyers know it. Those whose advertising and marketing encourages poor lifestyle habits are at risk of litigation. Future litigants will attempt to demonstrate negligence on the part of the food producer or retailer in knowingly selling a product that carries health risks, especially where those products were marketed as a day-to-day lifestyle food. The whole of our society, including children, have the right to know both the contents of our food purchases and the likely effect that consumption will have on the body. Society demands no less transparency and accountability from its professionals, politicians and public servants. (Time expired)