Breaking News! The government thinks you’re fat!

Jeremy Sammut of ABC News (Australia) wrote an article in which he argued that government sponsored programs that promote public health don’t work.

While his focus is specific to the Australian experience, he claims that Australia’s government has squandered public funds on advertising campaigns…and this claim may be applicable to both Europe and North America. The fact is, obesity is on the rise in the both the ‘developed’ and ‘developing’ worlds. Attempts by national or regional governments to promote a healthy lifestyle have largely been unsuccessful in reversing this trend towards obesity.

Sammut makes a few very interesting observations.

  • First, he claims that when government assumes the role of health nazi/nanny, it absolves the individual of “their primary responsibility for the unhealthy lifestyle decisions they continue to make”, and as a result, “the lifestyle disease ‘epidemic’ is blamed on a lack of government-funded entitlement to preventive primary care”.
  • This takes us to his second point; “the limits of government authority over individual behaviour, and the importance of personal qualities in regulating it – why nearly 40 years of health promotion has coincided with ascending rates of lifestyle disease”.

And if we are going to allow government to assume authority over our behaviour, we have to question the motivations behind this program.

Quite often, “advocates of more spending on lifestyle disease prevention often draw false parallels with the success of the campaign against tobacco smoking”. This argument is specious in that smoking bans and the ‘sin’ taxes applied on tobacco products are examples of public health regulation, not health promotion.


You would think that applying this model to public exercise and nutrition would be near impossible. Smokers were a minority group and their behaviour was found to be less than enchanting by a large portion of the population. Simply put, the majority ganged up on them and enacted laws that made smoking a financial and logistical pain in the butt.

  • How would government apply this strategy when the majority of the population does not exercise, eats junk food and has no intention of changing?
  • Odds are, they would start with the children. Apply a little parental guilt. Ban junk food from school (already happening). Slap a sin tax on ‘junk food’. Expand that tax to include bacon, eggs, cheese, filet mignon, etc…

And while that is unlikely to happen, Sammut’s argument is that the health promotion programs advocated for by certain lobby groups, prepared by marketing companies and approved by governments have not been successful.

In Canada, advocates of the ParticipACTION program (historical info) have considered it a success due to it’s longevity and the fact that “two years after the agency had ceased to operate in 2001, almost 80% of Canadians still recognized the ParticipACTION logo and message”.

  • No mention of it’s positive impact on the health of Canadians.
  • Wasn’t that the point of the program?

Nope, as long as Canadians remember cheesy commercials…(Like this ,thisthisand check out this spoof.)…it’s a success.

My Two Cents

As much as I appreciate the light that Dr. Sammut has shined on this subject, I was a little disappointed by his conclusion.

“It is therefore timely to review the evidence. Because when the assumptions are questioned and the evidence examined with a clear eye, what is revealed is that there is actually slim support for the belief that preventive public health policies – be they ‘community-wide’ or ‘high-intensity’ lifestyle interventions – have in the past brought obesity and lifestyle disease under control, or that they are likely to in the future”.

  • Review the evidence?
  • Do nothing?

While I agree that most if not all governments have a great talent for throwing great big bags of money at problems that they have no hope of solving, does that mean that as a society we are doomed to accept gluttony and sloth as our birthright?

Here are two possible solutions.

  • In the U.K., doctors are able to write prescriptions for exercise.

Personally, while I believe that this plan is flawed due to the fact that when the government is looking to spend public dollars, there will always be bureaucrats and service providers ready and willing to overcharge and under-deliver. However, to be fair, I should mention that this program has not been in operation long enough to show whether it is successful or not.

  • Another possibility would be to offer tax refunds to those individuals that can prove that they are pursuing a healthy lifestyle. Instead of demonizing the couch potatoes amongst us, reward the energizer bunnies.

What do you think?


  1. Giving a tax break to those who are healthy (those who end up costing businesses and the government less money) would be an excellent idea and actually worth researching. I’d like to see how American politicians would respond to that proposal.

  2. Giving a tax break would be one good idea. There’s still the matter of low income people being unable to afford good, healthy food that needs to be addressed. Even if one were to give them the education or a tax break incentive, low income people (which is growing ever so steadily even in developed nations like Canada or the US) could not afford the good food or the energy to cook that food (stovetops to cook lentils – I guess that’s why canned food is so popular – and then they get exposed to bisphenol A and other chemicals which may also play a hormone influencing role in overweight).

  3. And of course, many a government does not believe in fixing the situation even if it’s now creeping into the lower middle class.

  4. Sunny,

    You are right on. Even if we assume that a tax break would be successful, it is only one step.

    But our governments won’t even begin to take that step if we don’t give them a reason. Democratic governments react to the bad publicity and the possibility they might get tossed out of office.

    In Canada, a public outcry forced Health Canada to block the use of Bovine somatotropin (BST) to increase the production of cow’s milk.

    In 1998/99, Shiv Chopra, a drug evaluator with Health Canada questioned the safety of BST as well as the food being fed to cattle with regard to Mad Cow Disease.

    In 2004, Dr. Chopra (along with 2 other Health Canada employees who had spoken out publicly about the pressure employed by their supervisors to approve the usage of a number of animal drugs were fired from Health Canada.

    Ironically, three weeks later, Chopra received a congratulatory letter and a gold watch from Deputy Health Minister Ian Green, declaring that his “years of service have not gone unnoticed” and that he had “earned praise and respect”.

    If there was a sustained public concern for the quality of our food supply, gov’t bureaucrats would be less likely to silence shit disturbers like Dr. Chopra.

  5. I read the article and your post as well, interesting stuff. Tax breaks, I do not believe it would work.

    What about when we fall below standards? Will people face certain fines or penalties?

    Another factor, most lower class individuals can’t afford to live healthy lifestyles. To many questions and not enough answers. How much money would be spent regulating these standards?

    We all know the BMI testing is not accurate. People, if they desire should purse healthy lifestyles because of long life, general happiness, etc. Living healthy should come out of your own motivation tank.

    Other incentives given by the government (if this ever did happen) should be added reward. Anyhow, I’ve been writing long enough. Great topic!

  6. Lots of questions & not enough answers – true

    But your gov’t is making decisions like this already.

    Your tax dollars are given to farmers to NOT produce a crop.

    Your tax dollars go to farmers to produce politically correct bio-fuel corn.

    Your tax dollars go to fund a health care system that does little to prevent illness and spends the majority of it’s resources to give you an extra week of life in a hospital bed while wearing a diaper.

    Sorry about the rant.

    It may not work, but I would rather see the gov’t take some of their health care budget away from the traditional allopathic system and direct it towards health promotion.

    And don’t try to bribe people into eating healthy and exercising; by giving them back some of their income tax, you are acknowledging their efforts and rewarding them for reducing the burden on the health care system.

    No punishment – no bribes – Just a thank-you for reducing the health care burden

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