HamBurbs

A couple of articles in today’s Melbourne Broadsheet, The Age, reminded me of how the law can influence the obesity epidemic.

Health fear on estates by Miki Perkins reported how new suburbs in Melbourne are “…so poorly designed that residents face an epidemic of chronic diseases such as obesity and depression that will cost the health system millions of dollars”

“The concerns have prompted a state government inquiry into the impacts of urban design on health, and fuelled calls to make       health a priority in planning laws. ‘When it comes to urban planning, we are building suburbs that in 20 years will be ghettos of ill health,’ said Margaret Beavis, a Melbourne doctor…”.

Although some readers posting comments to the article countered its central thrust by citing examples of housing estates with amenities to encourage physical activity, and others arguing that “It’s the suburb you live in not the rubbish you shove down your throat that makes you fat? What a victim society we live in”, it was another brief reader comment that caught my eye.

“The entrance marking Caroline Springs, by way of example, is denoted by Hungry Jacks. Way to go, civic planners. Junk food, junk mentality, junk suburbs.”

It stood out because in the same edition of the paper ran Larissa Ham’s story Will burger mania change group buying?

It reported how Hungry Jack’s, local champion one of Melbourne’s sedentary suburbs, had just offloaded 675,000 discount vouchers through daily deal website Scoopon. “In a result that will make dietitians recoil in horror, fast food lovers have snapped up $1.3 million of vouchers in under 48 hours.”

Can you picture it? A long drive home from school with the kids to the outer-burbs, swinging into the drive-through to cash in your $2 burger vouchers …

Sow how does the law fit in? Christopher Reynolds in Public and Environmental Health Law (2011, The Federation Press) argues that law has a central place in responding to lifestyle diseases, including obesity. He argues that the role of law in this context is not to direct or prohibit behaviour (as it may for example with illicit drugs) but to change the environment in which personal choices are made and to level what is a grossly uneven playing field that encourages unhealthy choices over healthy ones [429].

And what of Advocacy Health Alliances? Tobin Tyler et al [eds] in Poverty, Health and Law: Readings and Cases for Medical Legal Partnership (2011, Carolina Academic Press) argue that while the origins of Medical Legal Partnership  lie in giving individual patients and clients with integrated medical and legal assistance to address the social determinants of health, lawyers and healthcare providers can play a very powerful role as agents for policy change. MLPs stand poised to leverage this potential by bringing together new groups that can identify with different movements and rally around the same public health agendas, such as environmental organisations, civil rights organisations and sustainable agriculture organisations [636].

Anyway, is it all really such a big issue? After all, “The Burgers are Better at Hungry Jacks”, aren’t they?

Peter Noble

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