Address to the Queensland Obesity Summit
Speech by the Minister for Health and Ageing, Tony Abbott, to the Queensland Obesity Summit, Parliament House, Brisbane, 3 May 2006.
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3 May 2006
Thanks Norman, thanks ladies and gentlemen. I want to congratulate Premier Beattie on his initiative in convening this obesity summit. I’m pleased that so many of his ministerial colleagues, including the State Health Minister, are here. I’m also pleased that this is a wholly non-partisan initiative and I’m delighted that members of the State Opposition are here and are going to be here in greater numbers as this summit continues.
You know, it’s quite interesting, isn’t it, that our Premier here in Queensland is a born-again thin person. I believe the Opposition Leader in Canberra is a born-again thin man. Our Prime Minister is a very regular walker and has never been overweight. Lawrence Springborg is a fit man and always has been.
So we have, if you look at our political leaders today, fit, healthy people - people who are conscious of being fit and healthy, and that’s quite a contrast, if I may say so, from the political leaders of a couple of generations back. You look at politicians of the Federation era, and the two things that - well, there are three things that strike you. They are all males, they’ve all got beards, and they’re all grossly overweight. So it is quite a change, but the interesting thing is that as our leaders have got thinner, our citizens have got fatter. And that’s the fundamental issue that we are addressing over the next couple of days.
I want to say that obesity is a very serious problem in our society. Obviously, it leads to cardiovascular disease, which remains Australia’s biggest killer and accounts for about 50,000 deaths a year. It is a very significant factor in most cases of diabetes, which exacerbates almost all health conditions and generally leads to a diminution in people’s life expectancy of about 15 years. Obesity is a complicating factor in almost all musculo-skeletal conditions, and it leads to all sorts of problems of a psycho-social kind.
Let me give you some harrowing statistics. Premier Beattie has already alluded to this. Two-thirds of adult males are overweight, one half of adult females are overweight, one quarter of Australian children are overweight, and about one-third of those overweight people are technically obese.
I’m advised that, every year, 7000 Australians die of cardiovascular disease as a direct complication of obesity. That’s 20 people a day die in Australia because of their weight.
So we have a serious problem and it’s getting worse - as the Premier said, about 1 per cent a year. I’m advised that, in fact, our rates of overweight and obesity have doubled in just two decades, which is more like a 5 per cent increase every year.
No one denies that obesity is a problem. It’s an increasing problem. The question is how to tackle it. Now, the basic problem that we face in modern Australia is that we eat too much and we exercise too little.
Now, the basic problem is that every kilojoule of energy, or every calorie, that we consume as food that we don’t burn off in exercise ultimately turns itself into body mass. If the energy we consume equals the energy we expend, our weight is stable. If the equation changes, our weight goes up or down. It is literally as simple as that.
An adult, a normal adult, will consume about 2500 calories a day, or about 10,000 kilojoules of energy, for healthy life. But the distressing news, at least to someone such as myself, who enjoys a treat, a light snack, is that so many of the things that we like to do are incredibly bad for us when it comes to putting on weight.
One large Big Mac meal is 1080 calories. One Mars bar is 275 calories. One Magnum ice-cream is 280 calories. One can of Coke is 161 calories. One slice of Pizza Hut Supreme is 253 calories and one Krispy Kreme doughnut is 250 calories.
You know, we can console ourselves with some comfort food at morning tea. But the bare amount, the bare amount – 300 calories – requires one hour of vigorous walking. And I was thinking to myself on the plane up here, one can of Coke, one Mars bar, one Magnum, one doughnut, one choccy milk – and that’s what, 390 calories, a 600ml of choccy milk – one choccy milk and one large Big Mac meal, which is what a lot of people would consume in, for argument’s sake, a day at the Easter Show. And that is more than their average daily energy requirement.
So you throw in some breakfast, you throw in a T-bone steak when you get home from the show, a couple of beers, and it’s no wonder that Australians are the fourth-fattest people in the world after Americans, Mexicans and Britons.
But it’s not just junk food or what we now like to think of as junk food. That traditional roast, roast chicken, is about 300 calories in the meat alone. A standard T-bone steak is about 300 calories in the meat alone. Three scoops of ice-cream, that’s another 300 calories. A beer is 140 calories. A cream biscuit is 90.
So, I say to all the people who are inclined to ban so-called junk-food advertising in children’s TV viewing time: do we also want to ban the ads for Arnott’s, Sizzlers and Norgen Vaas? And not to mention Four-X, an icon here up in Queensland, because if we’re going to tackle the root cause of obesity, it’s far more complex than simply modern junk food.
Now, I’ve got to say that, instinctively, I am reluctant to mandate new restrictions and new laws. I don’t think we can put people in cotton wool. I don’t think we can cover our population in cling-wrap. I think people need to retain substantial authority over how they live their lives. I think people need to be allowed to make mistakes. Sometimes, we have a right to be wrong.
I think there’s a world of difference between banning ads for products which are illegal, at least for under-aged people, or are always harmful, and banning ads for things which, as treats occasionally, are not harmful and certainly are not illegal, even for minors.
So, I don’t support, the Howard Government doesn’t support, calls for the banning of so-called junk-food advertising in children’s viewing hours. But I do think it is important that everyone has a sense of responsibility for what he or she does and for the consequences of our actions.
I’m encouraged that food advertisers do seem to be aware of the spirit of the times. They do seem to be reading the signs of the times, and not only have they significantly reduced their advertising in children’s viewing hours but they are now also moving to limit so-called pester-power ads in children’s viewing times.
I think the role of the Government, in this instance at least, is not so much to regulate, let alone to ban. I think its role is to encourage, to inform and to give good example. I’m pleased and proud to be part of a government which in 2004 has committed $116 million to an anti-obesity package, which included healthy canteen guidelines, healthy canteen grants which have now been taken up by some two-thirds of Australians schools.
I’m pleased that, as part of the recent Council of Australian Governments meeting, there has been $500 million dollars committed by the Federal Government to a ‘Better Health’ initiative which will, amongst other things, include health checks for middle-aged people with risk factors. I think these are all important elements of our campaign against obesity.
But what I think we need to do, above all, is to enable people to make better and more informed choices about what they do with their lives. Now, I’m conscious that most food is already required to be labelled with its calorie content. But I ask you, how many in this room - other than the people who are professionally engaged with this subject - have actually looked at that labelling? And how many have actually been able to work out what that labelling means?
It seems to me that current labelling requirements are a bit like the fine print in an insurance policy - it’s there, but almost no-one reads it, and those who do read it don’t necessarily know what it means.
So I’d like to see all ready-to-eat food prominently and unmistakably labelled with its calorie content and its percentage of our average daily food requirements. It wouldn’t be as large, it wouldn’t be as gory as the graphic health warnings that are now on cigarette packets. But it would nevertheless be an unmistakable sign to consumers of what they are doing to themselves when they consume these particular foods. People need to know that a meat pie is one-sixth of our daily food requirement. People need to know that a Mars bar or a Magnum is one-eighth of our daily food needs.
I think that information, rather than dictation is what Australians need, a government which keeps them informed rather than some kind of nanny state, and certainly, as the federal Health Minister, I look forward in the months ahead to working with the food industry to try to bring about a much more informed and ultimately much healthier Australian citizenry.
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