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Obesity - a market success: economic growth versus girth growth

By Rob Moodie - posted Thursday, 31 March 2005

Last week, a major study predicted that for the first time in the past 1,000 years, life expectancy is likely to decline - as a result of overweight and obesity. We know that this has arisen because of reduced activity and increased energy consumption, yet we focus little on one of the key drivers behind these - the market.

The market acts as the mediator and balance through which we not only buy and sell, but fundamentally interact with each other. It has become the backbone of our political and civil life, but it also happens to be a driving force behind many of the key determinants of overweight and obesity. Products that effectively reduce activity and increase energy consumption sell far better than those that increase or even encourage physical activity or moderate energy consumption.

There are so many new or improved products that have come on to the market in the last 30 years. Those that impact on obesity fall into three major categories; labour saving devices such as cars, and household and garden devices; time utilising entertainments, which tend to glue us to our couches, including computers, videos, DVDs, TV games and televisions; and lastly, high energy dense food and beverages.


These all sell very well. Car ownership in Australia has increased six fold from approximately 0.088 per head in 1950 to 0.54 in 2003. In 2003, 5 out of the top 20 advertisers were car companies. Combined advertising budgets for walking, cycling, even public transport would be unlikely to get in the top 1,000 advertisers. When did you last see a TV ad for a bike?

The proportion of Australian families who own computers has risen from 44 per cent in 1998 to 61 per cent in 2002, while Internet access grew even more rapidly from 16 per cent in 1998 to 46 per cent only 4 years later. Adding recreational computer use to television watching, to video watching, to video games means that much of children’s available leisure time has been diverted from what might have been physically active to substantially inactive time. TV ownership continues to rise so that in 2003, 65 per cent of homes have 2 or more televisions and 26 per cent have 3 or more.

As Professor Kiren O’Dea from the Menzies School of Health Research says, this is the first generation of sedentary children. In prior generations, computers simply didn’t exist, so children couldn’t spend time using them. Video shops didn’t exist and play stations and Nintendos weren’t an option.

And we have a very unfortunate symbiosis, given that increased watching of TV means increasing exposure to junk food advertising, this reinforcing the likelihood of child and adult overweight and obesity. The Australian Division of General Practice 2003 study showed that a child watching 4 hours of TV a day during 6 weeks of holidays would view 649 junk food ads, 404 for fast food, 135 for drinks and 44 for ice cream products.

The market competition in food has resulted in the capacity to package high density energy into very small amounts, so that children and adults can put away countless calories in seconds, rather than the minutes and hours it used to take. The choice and range and promotion of high density food and beverages have risen dramatically as has the demand for highly palatable, inexpensive but high calorie convenience and fast foods.

Economies of scale have seen many of our corner-shops disappear and be replaced by a huge shopping mall several kilometres away, thus forcing us off our feet and into our cars to shop. Lifts and escalators sell better than stairs in buildings.


Advertising is an intrinsic and important facet of the market, and it has increased remarkably in its ubiquity and ingenuity to encourage us to consume the new and better products.

Our capacity to buy has increased - by virtue of increasing disposable income, but also disposable credit, which has reached new peaks in Australia.

So the market has been a success, and will continue to be so if our current patterns of expenditure continue. But as it stands, it will also mean that we walk less, we exercise less, our glutes stay glued to the seat in front of a screen, we eat and drink more. And it might even mean that we interact with each other less and that we isolate ourselves more.

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An edited version of this article was first published in The Age on March 30, 2005.

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About the Author

Rob Moodie is Professor of Global Health at the Nossal Institute for Global Health at the University of Melbourne. Between 1998 and 2007 he was the CEO of VicHealth. He is co-editor of three books, including Hands on Health Promotion. He is currently writing a book called Recipes for a Great Life with Gabriel Gate.

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