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The weight debate - does obesity go beyond the individual?

By Emily McAuliffe - posted Tuesday, 23 April 2013

Earlier this year, the Queensland Government announced that it was considering placing graphic fat images on junk food packets in a bid to curb the obesity crisis. This follows hot on the heels of smoking campaigns using this tactic to scare smokers into quitting.

It seems that desperate times lead to desperate measures. But is this taking things a little too far?

Such interventions might seem like our rights as a consumer are being taken away. Surely we should be able to choose what we eat without having to look at an unpleasant picture of our insides in the process. Unlike smokers who can blow toxic smoke into the faces of passers-by, eating junk isn't hurting anyone else.


Or is it?

It could be argued that smoking and obesity should not be handled in the same way, primarily because smoking has a direct impact on others, while obesity does not (perhaps with the exception of being 'sardined'). If someone eats a cheeseburger, although they might belch pickle breath, it's unlikely to get into the lungs of an innocent bystander and cause cancer.

But while there's little direct impact, the truth is, obesity doesn't just affect the individual. It affects their family, their community and society as a whole. It strains the health system and impacts the economy.

As an example, the Queensland Courier Mail reported extra staff needing to be put on in some hospitals to hold back stomach fat during caesarean births, and emergency services having to purchase supersized ambulances at $350,000 a pop.

A report published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine back in 2004 found that over a ten-year period, an additional 350 million gallons of jet fuel was required on flights to compensate for American weight gain. That was almost ten years ago, imagine what the figure must be now.

The fact that we need to redesign equipment, infrastructure and transport, use more fossil fuel and even increase staffing rosters due to obesity shows that it's an issue reaching far beyond the individual.


So because it's a public problem, it requires public intervention. Displaying graphic images on food isn't as straightforward as cigarettes though, because where do you draw the line between what's junk and what's not? Will kids have nightmares after doing the weekly shop with mum? (Or will they develop an early appreciation of what a bad diet can lead to?).

What about fast food outlets - will they need to supplement every picture of a hamburger and chips with a side-image of hardened arteries? Obviously someone needs to have a good hard think before they rush out and plaster pictures of our innards all over the place.

Complexities aside, the fact that governments are even considering such radical measures to curb unhealthy eating habits might seem like an outright insult to overweight people, but these images would show the truth.

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About the Author

Emily McAuliffe is a freelance writer in Brisbane who is completing a Master of Public Health.

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Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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