Write Better English - Day 2

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Obesity experts agree: it's crunch time. But there is little consensus on how to tackle what is emerging as the world's most pressing medical crisis.

In just 20 years, calorie-dense fast food, passive entertainment and our dependence on the car have fuelled a doubling of Australian obesity rates. We now have the fifth-highest adult obesity rate in the world, with almost 9 million adults either overweight or obese. Their excess weight will place them at greater risk of diabetes, heart disease and a range of other conditions, and - according to a 2005 analysis by Access Economics - cost the nation more than $21 billion a year in health-care costs and lost productivity.

But while there is an agreement on the scale of the problem - globally more than 2 billion adults are either overweight or obese - opinion is divided on the best ways to overcome it.

"The solution is simple: less food, more exercise," says federal Labor MP Steve Gearganas, who is chairing a parliamentary inquiry into obesity in Australia. "How do we get people to do those things? That's the hard part."

Tomorrow, the World Health Organisation will present its action plan on the prevention of chronic diseases to the World Health Assembly in Geneva.

The plan calls on WHO member states to introduce a range of measures to tackle obesity, from restrictions on junk food advertising to planning and transport policies that encourage walking and cycling.

The Sunday Age looks at five measures that may form part of the solution.

Restricting junk food ads
The Canadian province of Quebec outlawed advertising to children through any medium in 1980. Childhood obesity rates actually increased after the bans were introduced, but supporters of the ban point to the fact that stations broadcasting from outside the province were not subject to the restrictions. Rates of obesity are lower among French-speaking children in Quebec than among English-speaking children from the province, who could watch American television. But obesity rates were not measured before the ban was introduced, so it is unclear if this is due to the ban or longstanding cultural differences.

A 2006 report commissioned by the Victorian Department of Human Services predicted that of 13 measures to combat obesity, restrictions on TV advertising of junk food to children would have the most impact, saving 37,000 disability-adjusted life years and $300 million per year if implemented nationally.

But the authors admitted that while the link between advertising and unhealthy food choices was proven, the relationship between food choice and weight was based on less evidence. The authors also noted that such a ban was politically unpalatable.

The Howard government repeatedly brushed off calls to restrict junk food advertising. Labor in opposition hinted at a ban on the use of toys to promote junk food before Kevin Rudd contradicted his then health spokeswoman by saying existing rules were adequate - a move seen by some as a cave-in to the food and advertising lobby.

"Traffic light" food labelling
Nutritionist Rosemary Stanton is one of many people calling for a mandatory front-of-pack labelling scheme to inform consumers about the levels of fat, sugar and salt in food products. In Briton, the Food Standards Agency has already introduced a voluntary system that uses the traffic light colours to tell people whether a product has a high, medium or low level of fat, saturated fat, sugar and salt. Surveys found that more than 80% of people preferred traffic-light labelling to other initiatives.

excerpt from the Sunday Age - Yes, We're Fat, but What Do We Do About It?