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  1. #1
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    Default Editorial from the Age on obesity

    Good work:

    Society needs to act on obesity epidemic
    September 5, 2006

    Sometimes the big picture is not obvious, or we refuse to see it until it becomes impossible to ignore. We acknowledge some symptoms and focus narrowly on those, or assert that "it's not our problem". Yet when a problem takes on epidemic proportions it becomes everyone's problem. Obesity is such a problem, but it is also a symptom of wider, "big picture" problems. This picture is emerging from the 10th International Conference on Obesity in Sydney this week. Perhaps the most revealing aspect of the picture - apart from the scale of the crisis - is how obesity ties in with so many other issues: urban planning; petrol costs and alternative transport such as cycling; the environment and climate change; infertility; economic productivity and mental wellbeing (obesity is a major factor in sleep disorders). Self-evidently, there are no simple "cures" for obesity.

    Public awareness and, more to the point, parents' influence over their children's habits are key factors, but simply promoting the virtues of healthier eating and exercise won't turn the tide (it hasn't for decades) unless other policies make it easier, even natural, to act on these messages. The benefits of policies that restrict advertising of junk food and soft drinks and ban sales in schools are likely to be limited. Monash University professor Paul Zimmet warned the conference that people "live in their silos with their pet beliefs on fast food, banning TV advertising or taxing junk foods". It is also important to be wary of a censorious approach that attaches greater stigma to obesity, as overweight children already suffer bullying and poor self-esteem.

    Victoria's chief health officer, Robert Hall, said last week: "What we will have to do is a whole range of different programs that act together." Public policy must, as Professor Zimmet argues, "acknowledge how our lives and the environment have changed in the last two or three decades". The costs of better planning, facilities and education are considerable, but are much less than the combined long-term costs of road deaths and injuries, the treatment of obesity and obesity-linked conditions such as heart disease, cancers, diabetes and infertility (obesity is increasing most quickly among women aged 20 to 35). These costs total billions of dollars every year.

    The debate about cycling in Melbourne presents a case study of the interaction of public awareness, health and planning issues. The city has grown around car-based transport, but high petrol prices, traffic congestion, health consciousness and environmental concerns have prompted many people to turn to cycling for recreation or commuting. However, the increasing numbers of cars and bikes no longer co-exist safely on the same road space. About one in 10 seriously injured road users are cyclists, and about half of them are under 16. Little wonder that mums' and dads' taxis transport children who would once have cycled to school or to a friend's house. Policies that make cycling safer would be more convenient for families and healthier for a generation of children whose rate of increase in obesity is the highest in the world. Adults could do with the exercise, too. A recent Sports Medicine Australia survey found one in three do little or no exercise at their desk-bound work, and three out of four parents say their families do not play sport or do physical activity together.

    A healthy diet and exercise regime is an individual responsibility, up to a point. Poor planning does not make healthy choices as easy as they should be. Professor Zimmet noted the spread of "McMansion" developments "without attention to sidewalks, bike paths, public transport corridors, playing fields and friendly exercise areas, attractive and accessible to people". Melbourne City Council deserves praise for working on a far-sighted alternative to a car-bound culture. Its plans include a European-style network of bike lanes, separate from other traffic. Many suburbs are in urgent need of similar vision that understands the need to limit urban sprawl and enables people to get around without a car. Governments cannot compel people to adopt healthier habits, but they can do more to eliminate the obstacles.
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  2. #2
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