It’s a bit of a schlep up to the platforms at our local train station. I’d guess the ramp is a one-in-eight gradient, steep enough to get some puff going. On an overcast weekday morning, the roar of traffic muted by a stiff south-westerly, I made the ascent with my three kids in tow. We climbed with a steady tramp and soon gained on a young boy and his Dad about to summit. The kid was clearly in trouble, the exertion taking its toll. I looked back as we overtook them.
The boy’s blonde fringe framed a face without angles. His cheeks were like the lumps of dough that dot the bench at our local pizza joint. Their port-red tinge set off blue eyes that sparkled but had a weariness I’m more used to seeing in old people. The pair plateaued and Dad searched for his Myki smartcard. I noticed the boy’s waist rolling over his elasticated shorts, the blue fabric stretched taut by his outsized thighs.
Dad put his Myki away, then reached into a bag, pulled out a jumbo-sized purple Slurpee and passed it to the boy. The youngster put straw to lips, moved a few steps away, and surveyed the people milling on the platform. His cheeks worked eagerly to the backdrop of office garb and the morning rush. Soon his rhythmic drafts were as calm as those of a suckling infant. By my reckoning, he was five years old.
It’s in our hardwiring to close ranks when our young and vulnerable are threatened. And so the temptation is to fire a volley of accusations at this nutritionally negligent parent. But any who might feel the invective rising would find themselves in high-level company. In a 2005 Four Corners interview, then Howard government Health Minister Tony Abbott was asked what responsibility parents should take for childhood obesity. ‘No one is in charge of what goes into kids’ mouths except their parents. It is up to parents more than anyone to take this matter in hand’ was his answer.
Children’s waistlines have crossed new frontiers since Abbott’s assured reply. A quarter of Australia’s young now qualify as overweight or obese. They may be tomorrow’s cardiac flatliners. They risk diabetes and its related harbingers of early death, including high blood pressure, heart attack and stroke. Robert Lustig, endocrinologist, anti-sugar campaigner and perhaps first-ever speaker on fructose metabolism to have a lecture go viral on YouTube, echoes the fears of many health specialists in his 2013 book Fat Chance, where he warns that, ‘despite the increased availability of medical care, our children will be the first generation of Americans who will die earlier than their forebears’.
A team led by Sydney University Professor Stephen Colagiuri has estimated the annual cost of adult obesity and overweight in Australia at over $56 billion. They accounted for the cost of hospitalisation, drugs, non-hospital medical care, supported accommodation and transport to hospitals. Then they added the expenses of lost productivity, early retirement, premature death and carers.
By any measure, obesity looms as an epic and expensive medical disaster. And as the Abbott government collects the invoices, one wonders how much longer it can afford to recite the libertarian mantra that ‘obesity is an issue of personal responsibility’. At some point the fiscal pragmatics must kick in. And this means looking with eyes wide open at the forces shaping parents’ food choices for their kids. The marketing of junk food to young people should be squarely in their sights.
This is the first of a two part article. Part 2 is Pavlov’s kids: is junk food advertising conditioning a generation fat children?