Public health

Pressure mounts to label obesity a chronic disease

The RACP is calling on the government to take swift and decisive regulatory steps to tackle the nation’s epidemic of obesity, which it wants reclassified as a chronic disease.

In a new position statement the college calls for a tax on sugar-sweetened drinks, more equitable access to bariatric surgery and tougher regulations to rein in the “obesogenic environment” that has driven a doubling in the number of children and adults with obesity between 1980 and 2013.

“This dramatic increase means that long-term conditions like type 2 diabetes, musculoskeletal disorders and sleep apnoea are occurring younger and younger,” said the statement’s lead author, Professor Boyd Swinburn, who trained as an endocrinologist and is Professor of Population Nutrition and Global Health at the University of Auckland.

“These conditions usually flow over into adulthood creating life-long burdens and shorter life expectancies.”

The statement, released this week at the RACP’s annual conference, calls for the Federal Government in Australia and the New Zealand government to make obesity prevention and treatment an urgent priority.

It notes many evidence-based strategies exist but remain “largely unimplemented” in both countries – some which may lead to policies that are unpopular with the fast food industry.

These include:

  • Introducing a comprehensive national obesity prevention strategy
  • Implementing an effective tax on sugar-sweetened beverages to reduce consumption – using the revenue to fund initiatives that encourage healthy diets and physical activity;
  •  Restricting the marketing of unhealthy foods and beverages to children and young people;
  • Revising the Health Star Rating system’s nutrient profiling algorithm to give stronger weight to sugar content and making it mandatory by 2019; and
  • Improving equitable access to weight-loss surgery for patients with severe obesity

The disease call is a first for the college, but it’s not a new concept.

According to the ABC Fact Check, the WHO already uses the definition and in 2009 an inquiry by a federal parliamentary committee recommended the label. But in a response four years later the government rejected the idea.
Meanwhile, the AMA is not convinced that the label is a good idea.
Speaking to 4BC radio, national president Dr Michael Gannon said the AMA had considered the idea during deliberations for its latest position statement on nutrition and “decided not to make the call”.

While conceding levels of obesity in the community are a real public health emergency, “defining a disease process purely on the basis, for example, of body mass index might not necessarily be helpful” he told the program.

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