HAL SWERISSEN. Obesity: individual responsibility isn’t enough

When individual choices cost tax payers $5.2 billion in extra health and welfare services for obesity, the market has failed. When the market fails, it is legitimate for government to act.  

The calls to curb obesity continue to mount. But the Turnbull Government claims government action on obesity would be nanny statism. The Deputy Prime Minister and the Assistant Minister for Health have made it clear that they think it is up individuals, not government, to take responsibility for what they eat and drink and how much they exercise. But the evidence is clear. Leaving it to individuals alone will not fix the problem.

Individuals are not solely responsible for their own choices. Not everyone is equally well informed. Children can’t be held responsible for their choices in the same way as adults. We have inbuilt biological preferences for salty, sweet and fatty food that are hard to resist.

Despite educational campaigns, weight loss programs, bariatric surgery, food labelling and the exhortations of government ministers, our level of physical activity has reduced, we continue to overeat, and salty, fatty and sugary food make up way too much of our diet.

If people who are obese met all their own health and welfare costs, then perhaps we could leave it to individuals to make their own choice. But as we found in our report on a sugary drinks tax, obesity costs taxpayers around $5.2 billion each year in extra health and welfare services.

The campaign for government action from health and consumer organisations is strengthening. Most recently the Council of Presidents of Medical Colleges have called for comprehensive plan to address obesity, including increased regulation and taxation to reduce consumption of unhealthy food and drink.

Internationally initiatives to introduce taxes on sugar, fat and salt are growing. Despite current resistance, experience suggests that, in time, Australian governments will increasingly use incentives, sanctions and regulatory mechanisms to curb obesity.

When individual choices cost tax payers $5.2 billion in extra health and welfare services for obesity, the market has failed. When the market fails, it is legitimate for government to act. Long ago we agreed that the costs for individuals and society caused by alcohol and tobacco consumption should be prevented and recovered through regulation and taxation. It is hard to argue against the same approach for obesity.

Hal Swerissen is Professor, College of Science, Health and Engineering, Latrobe University and Health Fellow for Grattan Institute.



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3 Responses to HAL SWERISSEN. Obesity: individual responsibility isn’t enough

  1. Malcolm Crout says:

    When junk food from the likes of McDonalds, Kentucky Fried Chicken and Dominos is cheaper than staples purchased in the supermarket, then those on the lower socio economic scale will be obese. The figures are not provided, but obesity is highest in the lower income groups whereas those in the higher income group have a lower level of obesity so the link is clearly income.
    The educational factors comer into play and again favour those in higher income groups where the length of school attendance is greater. So the children of higher income families are provided with better access to the educative facts of healthy eating. The other issue is that very few schools now have organised sport as part of their activities. Again, those parents on lower incomes are unable to provide sporting opportunities to the same level as higher income parents because the cost of organised sport is prohibitive for those families.
    To say a tax will fix this problem is sheer nonsense as the causation is not the issue of temptation but income or lack of it. Fix the unemployment problem and the nasty attitudes of Governments to welfare so the ability to educate themselves, for people to afford healthy food and their children able to partake in sporting activities and the problem will be resolved.

  2. Nicholas Gruen says:

    Taxes won’t do much, though it should be possible to nudge, coax and bully the fast food companies into starting to address the problem in their own enlightened self-interest.

  3. Jim KABLE says:

    Outright bans on the biggest culprit foods in all supermarkets and convenient stores – and proper at-point-of-sale taxes paid on all junk food meals/takeaways could just save us – from physical obesity and from ballooning/obesity levels of health costs!

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