Thursday, February 28, 2013

Fat chance scare tactics will trim us

In yesterday's Courier-Mail, a senior Queensland health bureaucrat proposed graphic health warning labels be put on sugary, fatty and salty foods to help tackle obesity.

The assumption behind using such labels is that because they worked in cutting smoking rates, they'll work on the naughty foods we enjoy.

It might sound reasonable, until the plan is put under the microscope.

Graphic warning labels assume we buy all our unhealthy food in ready-to-eat form.  That isn't the case.  Home-cooked meals filled with sugar, salt, oil and fat can be as unhealthy as food in a takeaway bag.

And unhealthy food isn't just limited to kitchens at home.

Under the plan, a discerning restaurant customer can order a 250g piece of wagyu beef with up to 25 per cent fat marbled through it, a bowl of pomme frittes and a tall glass of surprisingly sugary French champagne.

Their meal will come with an expensive price tag and even a chef's recommendation.

Meanwhile an average Queenslander can go to a fast food store and order a 120g beef pattie burger with a fat content of about 10 per cent, a side of fries and a Coke and get a label designed to shock them out of their choice.

It doesn't take a genius to figure out both options require a serious workout to burn off the calories.

Graphic warning labels are part of what is called the ''denormalisation'' of salty, sugary and fatty foods.  Denormalisation is a plan by bureaucrats to slowly and subtly change our behaviour and encourage us to be critical of others making unhealthy choices.

Warning labels are a media-savvy, sound-bite-friendly, one-size-fits-all approach to a much bigger public policy challenge that requires educating people about how to live healthy lifestyles.

Graphic warning labels also have the same problem as traffic-light labelling, where processed foods carry a green, red or amber symbol indicating the product's relative nutrition.  They superficially appear to be a good idea but do virtually nothing to help people understand if, and how often, a food product can be consumed.

By simplifying labelling, people can be discouraged into trusting loosely relevant information rather than taking an active decision to inform their choices.

In the longer term, the problem with graphic warning labels is that they are just part of an ongoing escalation of government interference in our lives.

Unsurprisingly, the same health official who has called for these labels advocated a fat tax last year.

Australia already has an effective fat tax.  It is called the GST, under which processed foods have a 10 per cent tax added to their price, while fresh food does not.

Yet despite this tax operating for more than 11 years, it has done little to improve our health.

The only solution, then, is to increase the rate, which would disproportionately harm the poor and tax them out of their choices.

It may not surprise some people that other health researchers have already called for discussion on plain packaging for fast food.

The only real way for people to cut their waistlines and stay healthy is for them to make informed decisions and monitor their own bodies, exercise and consumption.

That will not be achieved by simplistic and subjective shock tactics.

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