Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Slim opening forms around idea of 'fat tax'

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BRISBANE -- Australia recently made cigarettes Public Enemy No. 1 and has now moved beyond the wheezing, emphysema afflicted smoker to put the "fat bastards'' in its sights.

The national obsession with fat has hit overdrive in 2013 with a range of programs to stop what is now being widely described, without irony, as a "national epidemic."

The European arrivals on Australia's First Fleet in 1788 feared starvation in the first perilous years of settlement. Now we're nervous about gorging ourselves into an early grave at "Maccas" (the Australian nickname name for McDonald's).

The northern state of Queensland is identified as hosting the nation's largest number of "fat bastards" -- that wonderful caricature of obesity portrayed as a foul-mouthed Scot in the Austin Powers films.

Queensland's chief health officer Jeannette Young has called on parents to ban their children from consuming all soft drinks and fruit juices until they have reached high-school age.

And this week the previously absurd notion of a "fat tax" was actively discussed as a panel of nutritionists, doctors and health economists gathered in the state capital of Brisbane.

Participant Dr. Tracy Comans told The Courier Mail the biggest threats came from sugar-sweetened beverages, processed meats and "snack foods."

Comans says tax is one weapon, subsidies another.

"First of all we wanted to identify the main culprits and then, if it is feasible, to tax them," Comans said.

Australia's federal government is carving out a reputation as a world leader in keeping its citizens in line when it comes to healthy living.

Last year it legislated plain packaging for cigarettes and has ensured smokes are hidden away in colourless trays behind shop counters.

Now sections of the health profession appear to be generating low-level hysteria over the size of what only a generation ago were seen as healthy, robust kids.

The Danish government gave the fat tax a shot in October, 2011, with a tax on butter, milk, cheese, pizza, meat, oil and processed food. But the Danes found it didn't deter the fat bastards, and overturned it late last year.

That almost every developed nation has grown fat can't be argued -- the decline in physical activity sparked by the Industrial Revolution has led us to the Communication Age, where much of our physical "work" doesn't extend beyond typing on a keyboard.

But the plethora of weight-loss companies and the endless debate on finding "solutions'' to the "problem" of obesity does weary many souls (even those carrying extra kilograms themselves) who know full well the answer is simple.

One of the nation's more popular and high profile politicians, Opposition front bencher Malcolm Turnbull, recently lost about 14 kilograms.

Such was the media interest in the newly svelte communication spokesman that Turnbull was quizzed on his "secret" during a press conference.

"It may seem like a penetrating glimpse of the obvious,'' he told curious reporters. But it is an insight most of us ignore because it is too painful.

"The way to lose weight is to eat less.

"I am being less greedy than I used to be.''

Michael Madigan is the Winnipeg Free Press correspondent in Australia. He writes mostly about politics for the Brisbane-based Courier Mail.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 1, 2013 A11

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