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Professor Boyd Swinburn is proud that not only is Deakin University’s research into the causes of and cures for the obesity epidemic groundbreaking at the global level, it is also fiercely independent.
“I am happy to say that at Deakin our public health research is not funded by any vested interests,” said Professor Swinburn, who holds the Chair of Public Health in Deakin’s School of Exercise and Public Health.
“So when we speak we are able to do so with a clear conscience and that’s actually quite rare.”
Professor Swinburn’s latest project, in partnership with Monash University, is a National Health and Medical Research Council funded, five-year project to look at what are the legal and regulatory options for reducing childhood obesity.
“We also looking at ways of reducing the inequalities in the fight against obesity,” he said.
“Kids from lower socio-economic situations have a greater propensity towards obesity than those from higher socio-economic ranges.
“If you run programs that are educational, they are more likely to be picked up by the higher SES groups but create a bigger divide with the lower groups.
“The good thing about policy options, legal and regulatory, is that they apply to everyone.
“There is now no doubt that legislation is going to have to be part of the solution.
“Industry is not going to pull back on things like advertising junk food to kids unless it is regulated. That is absolutely clear.”
Professor Swinburn argues that while economic and commercial drivers are behind the obesity problems, particularly with children, they cannot be used as solutions.
“That belief is based on what I have observed of other epidemics,” he said.
“You need to have policy drivers like we have seen with road injuries. You need a whole range of laws to get the road toll down.
“There has also been a whole bunch of legislation behind the anti-smoking campaigns to get the level of smoking down.”
However, it won’t be as simple as passing laws that say eat this, or do physical activity now.
“At first analysis, it looks like most of the potential regulations are going to be focussed on the food environment and the physical activity environment,” Professor Swinburn said.
“Now that’s a bit different to tobacco regulations that say you can’t smoke here, or laws saying you must wear seat belts.
“They can dictate behaviours with laws like that.
“But we’re not going to be able to legislate to tell people what to eat and that they must take exercise.
“So any regulations that are introduced are going to be about providing an environment that makes healthier choices easier choices.
“So if a council is building a park, for instance, you make sure that they put it in a sensible place with easy access for everyone in the community.
“You put a fence around it to make it safer.
“You don’t have the dangerous big swing. You minimise the risk of injury and you maximise the pleasure so kids and parents want to be involved in physical activity.”
Professor Swinburn smiles at the thought some of this new legislation might also mean the end of the great suburban cul de sac.
“They are a real problem of design,” he says. “They reduce walkability in neighbourhoods, they reduce connectivity. They really do need to go!”
Better layouts for new developments that promote walking will become a new factor in urban design.
Another imperative of better urban design must be improved traffic flow.
“Seriously, I don’t think obesity will be the major driver in a lot of these reforms,” Professor Boyd said.
“There will be other factors like congestion, pollution, traffic problems and injury prevention.
“When we have an environment that minimises Greenhouse gases, reduces traffic congestion and maximises liveability, we will have an environment that maximises physical activity.”
Professor Swinburn is confident when that goal is finally achieved, Deakin University will be seen as having played a leading role both here in Australia and internationally.
“In terms of working out the theory and the mapping and the planning of the problems with obesity, we are right up there,” he said.
“We have the great work being done by Liz Waters and the public health Cochrane group on systematic reviews of the evidence and Rob Carter pioneering the economic modelling of obesity interventions plus many others at Deakin working on various aspects of nutrition and physical activity.
“We have done some seminal work defining obesogenic environments and that has changed concepts globally. So in terms of theoretical and methodological work, Deakin is at the forefront.
“In terms of the empirical evidence on preventing unhealthy weight gain in children and adolescents, I think the whole-of-community demonstrations projects that Deakin is involved in are also of international importance.”
There are seven of these, one in Moreland in inner Melbourne, one in the Victorian regional town of Colac, two in Geelong and three more in New Zealand, Fiji and Tonga.
Each is aimed at promoting healthier diets to young people and also encouraging them to be more involved in physical exercise. Fully evaluating the results is also vitally important.
“Colac is the first one to complete its initial three years and the results have found significant effects on reducing unhealthy weight gain and waist gain in these kids,” Professor Swinburn said.
“This is a template that can be applied internationally. When the other six projects get their follow-up data over the next couple of years, we’re going to exponentially increase the amount of empirical evidence to show us the way forward in community based interventions.
“That is a real model internationally.”
And it is a real model with a real job to do.
Professor Swinburn says the problems associated with obesity go way beyond the health sphere. They will create a huge drain on the economy – and taxpayers.
“If you have your binoculars on, it is a crisis already,” he said.
“If you have your near-vision glasses on, or if you a politician responding to the daily issues as so many do, then you probably can’t see it.
“I think though there are enough forward looking people, and also an awareness about the costs in the future, for people to realise the need to start doing something meaningful right now.”
That includes restrictions on the marketing of junk food to kids, a highly contentious issue, one where the importance of independent research really shines through.
“We have just submitted the results for publication of the global consultation that we held on principles to guide action for reducing junk food marketing to kids,” Professor Swinburn said.
“I chaired an International Obesity Taskforce group. We launched a set of principles at the Sydney International Congress on Obesity last year, so they are called the Sydney Principles.
“We have developed these seven principles that we hope will really pull the debate on junk food marketing to kids back to where it belongs - that is the protection of kids and the rights of children.
“I am hoping those Sydney principles will be a bench mark for national and international regulations that really begin to achieve the change we have to have if our kids and grand kids are going to have a healthy life, and if our economy is not going to crash under the weight of impossible medical expenses.”