This morning, I saw news that President of the Australian Medical Association, Michael Gannon, wants a shock campaign, similar to our hugely successful QUIT (anti-smoking) campaign, to address growing obesity rates, and increase understanding of the ‘frightening end-stage health results of obesity-related type 2 diabetes such as limb amputation, blindness, stroke, heart and kidney failure.’ (The Courier Mail article where this quote is from can be found beyond a paywall here. Some details also freely available here.)

That quote alone would have put me off my breakfast if I was the breakfast eating type. Alas, I am not. Which is good, because there was more…

In an accompanying editorial (also behind a paywall), there was the brilliant idea that ‘…there is room for some shock and awe education…child-friendly information that is both understandable and impactful when it comes to the consequence of living with type 2 diabetes’. The editorial again made the flawed connection between this idea and the success of anti-smoking campaigns.

We can point to the triumph of the QUIT campaign – and should do so as it has been an extraordinarily successful – and long term – initiative. But if anyone believes the success of QUIT came from some shock advertisements on TV, they are so wrong. This campaign has always been a multi-pronged approach: advertising, legislation, taxes, education and – most importantly – funding, and that is why it’s been so successful.

Alongside the high-rotation television, radio and print media commercials (and in more recent times, online ads), there was legislation. Cigarette advertising was banned. As a kid, I remember Summer being brought to us by Benson and Hedges. As we watched the Aussies playing the West Indies in the cricket (seriously, you want me on your trivia team if the questions are about the 1980s West Indian cricket team. I still have a crush on wicket keeper Jeffrey Dujon) it was advertisement after advertisement of cigarettes. The fence around the MCG was adorned with golden B&H logos.

And then, that stopped. Tobacco advertising on television and radio was prohibited as was all print advertising. No longer could cigarette companies hire billboards to spruik their products. Today, cigarettes sold in stores must be hidden away in a cupboard without any advertising at all.

And new and steep taxes were introduced, increasing the cost of cigarettes more and more and more each year.

Smoking became illegal in more and more places: firstly there was no smoking in restaurants and cafes, then pubs. Most recently, smoking has been banned anywhere that food is served, meaning that the last place to have a smoke while eating (outside seating at a café or in an open beer garden) is now not an option either.

There were education programs funded to provide information about the dangers of smoking.

But smoking is not obesity. Tobacco is not food. We can’t use the same approach as the ‘every cigarette is doing you harm’ idea (used recently as part of QUIT). Food is much more nuanced. It’s fine to eat so-called ‘junk food’ occasionally. While there is no safe level of smoking, there is a safe level of eating a little bit of everything!

The idea that some scary advertisements on prime time will in any way solve the issue of obesity is ridiculous. Will these advertisements be shown alongside those for Macdonald’s latest burger, or a new sugary breakfast cereal? Will telling kids the dangers of being overweight and eating ‘bad’ foods happen before or after their Milo– or KFC–sponsored sporting activities?

If we are seriously going to address the obesity issue, we need to get serious with all aspects required for significant change. We need advertising controls, we need (sugar) taxes, we need proper, funded education programs.

And we need to get the messaging right. I was so disappointed to see Michael Gannon single out type 2 diabetes in today’s news. When we talk about the consequences of obesity, we need to stop being so selective about what we connect it to.

Obesity may be a risk factor for type 2 diabetes, but it is also a risk factor for other conditions, including some cancers and cardiovascular disease. And yet we would never,  ever blame someone for developing breast or bowel cancer – a diagnosis of which obesity may or may not have contributed to. It is too easy – and lazy – to single out type 2 diabetes.

I don’t for a moment think that we should bury our head in the sand and do nothing about the obesity situation in Australia. But we need to do it properly, we need to do it collaboratively, we need to do it honestly, and we need to do it sensitively.