“Confronting the powerful vested interests that shape our lives cannot be left to individuals.”

That’s what leading public health experts from Canada, the UK, the US and Australia wrote in an academic article a few years ago when arguing that governments must act to tackle the mounting epidemic of chronic diseases such as diabetes.

The epidemic, which threatens the sustainability of health services around the world, is too big for individuals alone to fight, when so many aspects of modern urbanised societies conspire to promote weight gain, inactivity and unhealthy eating patterns.

It requires governments to take on those interests contributing to this unhealthy environment – whether the food and advertising industries or urban developers – in the name of the greater good.

News that Labor has wilted on its commitment to tackle junk food marketing after pressure from the food and advertising lobby makes a mockery of its repetitive commitment to “working families”.

When interviewing many “working families” and public health experts for my book, I was much struck by their consensus on at least one issue. Both the professional experts and parents emphasised how difficult it has become for families to follow healthy lifestyles when so many aspects of modern life work against this.

“It’s just so difficult for parents,” one Hobart mother told me when explaining the impact of a tsunami of junk food marketing. “Modern Australian society makes it almost impossible for them to feed their children a healthy nutritious diet.”

The history of public health teaches that the greatest gains have come when governments take action to make it easier for us to make healthy choices, rather than simply telling us that we must change our behaviour.

We’ve learnt that it’s all very well telling people not to smoke, or not to drink and drive, or to buckle up their seat belt – but without some legislative backing, such admonitions have little impact.

History also teaches that many people have died prematurely or suffered terribly because of political reluctance to pick a fight with the powerful interests behind the modern agents of illness, whether tobacco, alcohol, cars or unhealthy foods.

It took decades, for example, to move from the discovery that lead paint caused neurological damage in children to laws and regulations to tackle the problem. Similarly, tobacco control advocates prodded and pushed governments for decades before they acted effectively against that particular killer.

In that sense, Rudd’s backtracking in obesity policy is entirely predictable. And pathetic.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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