Personal responsibility won’t solve Australia’s obesity problem

The prevalence of obesity in Australia hasn’t tripled in the last 30 years because we’ve all lost personal responsibility. Flickr/confidence, comely., CC BY-NC

Almost two thirds of Australians are now overweight or obese. In fact, obesity and unhealthy diets now contribute to more disease and illness in Australia than smoking. This makes finding solutions to our obesity problem a big issue for all of us.

The scandalous removal of the website launching the new Australian food labelling system and its accompanying conflict-of-interest concerns are only weeks old. And now Liberal MP Ewan Jones tells us we don’t even need the scheme because :

It’s not the government’s fault that I’m fat, it’s my fault and I live with the consequences.

This raises the important question of whether a reliance on personal responsibility – a key agenda of the current government, led by a prime minister who walks the talk – is really appropriate in the area of obesity prevention.

Why not rely on personal responsibility?

While there is an inherent truth that weight gain is heavily dependent on what we put in our own mouths, the argument for personal responsibility as the obesity solution falls down pretty quickly when we ask the question, “Has the prevalence of obesity in Australia tripled in the last 30 years because we’ve all lost personal responsibility?”.

The effects of changes in food environments have been compounded by our inactivity. Josh Kenzer, CC BY-NC-SA

Of course the answer is no, with all the evidence pointing to changes in the food environment. Since the 1980s, we have seen an ever increasing supply of cheap, tasty, energy-dense food that is very effectively marketed and widely available.

These changes have been the primary driver of population weight increases, and the effects have been heightened by our sedentary lifestyles.

Nanny state vs informed choice

In the case of the Health Star Rating food labelling initiative, Mr Jones has mistaken the provision of useful nutrition information for a nanny state intervention.

A nanny state is defined as one in which the government makes decisions for people that they might otherwise make for themselves. With food labelling, no personal eating decisions are actually being made by the government – these are still clearly a personal responsibility.

The Health Star Rating system isn’t about “telling you … everything you eat is wrong”, to use the words of the MP, it is the simple provision of nutrition information in a format that might help us all make informed choices. This is surely useful, particularly when set against the barrage of marketing for unhealthy foods.

The UK government has seen the sense of this argument and set up a whole ministry whose goal is to nudge the population toward better choices.

Leaving it up to the free market

The MP, some of his colleagues and their friends at the anti-nanny-state Institute of Public Affairs would rather leave obesity to the free market, and the personal responsibility of the people of Australia to fix. Perhaps then, we should contemplate what that strategy might achieve.

We don’t have to wonder for long though, because we are living it. With a market-driven food system based on ever-increasing consumption, our very costly level of obesity has been a predictable outcome.

While we might like to think that the choice of what we put in our mouth is our own and that demand dictates supply, the actual choices we are presented with and the way they are marketed are heavily influenced by the food industry. Supermarkets, for example, where many of our food choices are determined, are thought to have been the single biggest influence on eating habits over recent decades.

It’s in the interests of food companies to frame obesity as an issue of personal responsibility. Flickr/Attila con la ca mara, CC BY-NC

The food industry commonly argues for reduced regulation. This is clearly driven by a push to maximise their own profits and their obligation to maximise returns to shareholders.

It is understandable for food companies to oppose the provision of readily understandable nutrition information if it has the potential to impact their bottom line. For this reason, it is in the interests of food companies to frame the obesity issue as one of personal responsibility. In this way, they hope to deflect attention from themselves and minimise government intervention.

Government intervention to reduce obesity

So, if the market is unlikely to help us here (and all evidence suggests that to be the case), are regulatory interventions likely to be any more successful?

Most of the biggest success stories in Australian public health (immunisation, smoking rates, road safety) that benefit us all have been heavily reliant on government intervention. In the case of seat belts, the laws clearly impact directly on personal choice. But the benefits of having our government “nanny” look after us are very clear.

In the area of obesity, interventions such as restrictions on food advertising to children, taxes on unhealthy food, and improvements to food labelling are likely to be highly effective, while saving the government money.

The responsibility for reducing the national waistline is clearly a joint one between individuals and government. When we hear politicians attempting to frame the issue as a matter solely of personal responsibility, we need to wonder whether they are acting in the public interest or if they’re singing the gold-seeking tune of the private sector.