Health experts say obesity is quickly becoming Australia’s biggest public health challenge.
A new study has found obesity has overtaken smoking as the leading cause of preventable diseases in Western Australia.
Health experts have described the figures as alarming and say the obesity epidemic has now reached crisis point.
Australia has one on the highest rates of obesity in the world, with more than 60 per cent of adults and one in four children overweight or obese.
Professor Mike Daube, the president of the Public Health Association of Australia, says the epidemic is on the rise.
“We’re aware of the problem [but] we’re not doing enough about it,” he said.
“It’s taken us 60 years since we knew about the dangers of smoking to get to this fairly encouraging decline. We need to move faster than that on obesity.”
Professor Daube says the Federal Government spends just 2 per cent of the country’s health expenditure on prevention, which is not enough.
He says there should be more health and physical education in schools, as well as a curb on junk food advertising.
Tim Gill, the principal research fellow at the Boden Institute of Obesity Nutrition and Exercise at University of Sydney, says Australia has been slow to respond to the obesity problem.
“When we had the alarm bells ring 15 years ago very, very little was done and it’s only really in recent times that we’ve started to take this problem seriously,” he said.
“As a consequence, we’ve now seen probably a generation of young adults go through a period of time where obesity wasn’t seen as a serious issue… and now they’re the people who are starting to develop these chronic diseases, particularly type 2 diabetes, which is driving what we’re seeing here in terms of the cost of illness.”
Associate Professor Gill says there are many lessons to be learned from the successes of anti-smoking campaigns.
“We needed to get large structural changes in terms of the social acceptance of smoking, in terms of regulations about where and how to smoke, in terms of fiscal policies around taxation to discourage the uptake and continuance of smoking, and I think governments need to accept that they need to see obesity in exactly the same light,” he said.
“The need to change a situation that we have at the moment where we live in an environment where the wrong types of foods are so readily available and they are so cheap and they are promoted and made available wherever we go.”
Federal Health Minister Nicola Roxon says the Government is aware obesity is a growing and serious problem.
She rejects claims the Government is not doing enough and says major investments have been made.
“Some of our changes are being blocked in the Senate like the establishment of a preventative health agency that the Liberal Party have been opposing,” Ms Roxon said.
“We believe that the changes that are part of this health reform can make a significant difference to investing more at the front end of health care and maintaining people’s fitness.
“We are prepared to consider further steps which should be taken but this is a community-wide problem. It needs the community, it needs health professionals, it needs families and it needs the Government to tackle it.”
The findings of the West Australian study have been published in the Australian New Zealand Journal of Public Health.