You Are What You Chose To Eat

It is a tribute to Australia’s prosperity that people in poverty are more likely to be overweight than underweight. But rather than a celebration of the achievements of economic growth, this has instead led to cries of an “obesity epidemic”.

For instance, Ross Gittins argued (Opinion, 28/6) that this is a case of market failure that we need the government to remedy.

It is clear that the average weight of Australians is increasing. But obesity is a complicated area, and health advocates would do better to analyse the long-term causes and effects before rushing into calls for government regulation.

Using the standard measure of obesity, the body mass index (which, in simple terms, compares weight with height), obesity is on the rise. At present, 21 per cent of Australians are classed as “obese”.

However, the medical literature is highly sceptical of the validity of this measure that takes no account of body composition, such as muscle or bone. It may be that many people now classified as obese are, in fact, “big-boned”.

Our consumption habits also tell a complex story. OECD data shows that daily energy consumption per Australian has actually decreased since the early 1960s by about 125 kilojoules. Similarly, our sugar consumption has also gone down. Many nations, including the United States, have seen increases along these lines, but these figures indicate that Australian consumption is getting more, rather than less, healthy.

Even more surprising: a study from the Centres for Disease Control in the United States found that “overweight” people had a lower risk of death than those of normal weight. Not only that, but this lower risk partly cancelled out the increased deaths from obesity.

But we are getting heavier. Part of this is to do with the composition of our diet.

As the millions of supporters of the Atkins diet will argue, what we eat now is radically different from what our ancestors ate 50 or 100 years ago. But it is also true that what those ancestors ate is radically different from what their ancestors ate. Food consumption has been one of the biggest changes brought about by our centuries-long process of globalisation.

More recently, technological change and supply-line innovation in food manufacturing has drastically reduced the cost in time and money of food preparation. It is arguably a wise economic decision to eat out rather than in, especially when factoring in the time of shopping and cooking a meal.

As the quality and variety of manufactured food has gone up, its price has gone down.

But most of the recent growth in weight is not directly attributable to our food.

A study by the economists Darius Lakdawala and Tomas Philipson found that only 40 per cent of weight gain since the 1970s is due to changes in diet. Rather, the large part of our weight increase can be attributable to changes in lifestyle and work practices.

Contrary to what Gittins has argued, this is not an opportunity for government to intervene.

First, government regulation doesn’t seem to work. Sweden has every program on the book to combat childhood obesity. Advertising aimed at children under 12 is banned. Sports programs are heavily subsidised. Healthy cooking is part of the curriculum. But the number of overweight Swedish children has tripled in the past 15 years.

The market is remarkably good at educating people on the negative consequences of their decisions. Balancing against the advertising for high-sugar snacks, television programmers have provided shows like What’s Good for You and The Biggest Loser.

All of these programs have been produced not by government, but by corporations eager to maximise their ratings, and therefore their profits.

In fact, data from the United States indicates that the number of food and restaurant commercials viewed by children has actually declined over the last decade.

Consumers are becoming more aware of the consequences of fatty and unhealthy food. This change in demand goes far past the salads at McDonald’s. Juice bars, wheatgrass shots, bioengineered food and even sushi were unheard of to Australians 50 years ago.

The notion of a government regulating to protect people against obesity used to be unthinkable, used as a parody of anti-tobacco legislation. Unfortunately, it shows us how far the political debate has moved from personal responsibility to government responsibility.

But is there a clearer area in which individual responsibility must take the fore than when choosing what we eat? Government regulation is not the solution to the obesity crisis.

Market The Massage, Not Media Moguls

The release of submissions to Communications Minister Helen Coonan’s media reform proposals merely confirm a few truisms about the debate over media ownership in Australia: The public is deeply ambivalent about the spectre of ownership concentration. And few commentators and organisations are willing to break the cycle of protectionism and regulation that has characterised the sector for the past century.

Much of the debate about the removal of cross-media ownership rules, and their proposed replacement – a minimum number of owners in each market – has missed the point. Competition law, rightly or wrongly, governs the sector to protect against monopolistic practices. But ownership regulations relating to broadcasting go beyond that to encourage structural diversity.

Why do we fear, as Senator Coonan’s media reform paper put it, “excessive ownership concentration”? An aim of the broadcasting law is the promotion of opinion diversity.

Access to this is one of the foremost assumptions of a democratic society. It is widely believed that to ensure people are adequately informed about their choices in a democracy, they require a wide range of information.

Given the large influence the media has on our democratic process, legislators fear a media mogul could unduly manipulate public opinion for their personal ends. With ownership limits, the Government tries to encourage “diversity”.

Unfortunately, we have not come far from the views of Robert Menzies who feared that “the most intimate form of propaganda known to modern science” could be controlled by “people who do not belong to this country”.

Senator Coonan has his spirit. Menzies was no lover of the free market and his Toryism is still reflected in the backward attitudes of the Liberal Party to media ownership.

The Government’s media changes will probably remove restrictions on foreign investment and ease cross-media ownership restrictions. While these changes go a small way to liberalising the industry, they do not challenge the widely held belief that moguls manipulate public opinion, to the detriment of Australia’s democracy.

Compare our relatively objective media with the highly partisan media of the 19th century and before.

Objectivity has not arisen because of ownership restrictions or the best efforts of legislators. Instead, it is a response to market demands through changing technology.

In the early 20th century, many media proprietors realised there was a greater market for a news media without overt partisanship. Technology in this period, from cheaper printing presses to radio and television, enabled them to capture that market. The notion of journalistic objectivity has been the result of these changes and consumer demand.

More recent changes in market structure could be pushing our broadcast media the other way. We often desire objectivity in reporting, but also enjoy reading highly partisan blogs or opinionated columnists.

Today’s proprietors face an explosion of technologies. Some are well appreciated, such as blogs on the internet. But some are not often recognised for how significantly they have changed viewing habits, such as the video recorder.

Despite their well-publicised views on political issues, the moguls, including Rupert Murdoch, have comparatively little influence compared with the all-powerful newspaper tycoons such as William Randolph Hearst and Lord Beaverbrook, who operated without substantial competition. Murdoch is no Citizen Kane.

Radical change over the past 30 years has inundated media companies with competition. The high capital costs that encouraged the media to package objectivity are being replaced by the extraordinarily low costs of cheap printing and the internet.

As any first-year marketing student will predict, media companies, big and small, are attempting to respond to this highly competitive environment by differentiating their product from competitors.

One effective way is the careful, studied introduction of political viewpoints.

Any assessment or assertion of bias in a media organisation has to take into account this fact – more often than not, bias is an intentional technique to attract and retain an audience.

The internet gives people interested in political ideas more viewpoints than they would be able consume in a lifetime.

We live in an age of information and opinion abundance, rather than one where we need to be wary of the undue influence of media tycoons.

The reality is that no ownership regulation is going to prevent media organisations from chasing markets they consider to be profitable. Legislators should treat the media no differently than any other industry – neutral and respectful of the services they offer consumers.

It is unfortunate the Government, and many of the contributors to the media reform consultations, do not believe that.

There Can Never Be Too Much Sport, Mr Samuel

While the first footy game of 2005 might still be weeks away, former AFL commissioner and now chairman of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission Graeme Samuel recently kicked off the pre-season competition. He suggested that the ACCC was considering regulating the sale of the rights to broadcast AFL games over the internet and via mobile phones.

Samuel’s target is Telstra, which he fears will use its substantial financial resources to buy the exclusive rights to matches.

The problem, according to him, is that customers will prefer the internet and mobile phone products of a company that carries AFL games, compared with a company that doesn’t. And this, according to the ACCC, is anti-competitive.

On this logic the AFL grand final is anti-competitive because only one team can win.

If this is an indication of an ACCC keen to redefine anti-competitive behaviour, then the regulators are going to be very busy cracking down on auction houses, the record companies, film studios – indeed, anything that exclusively sells a unique product.

It’s about time that Samuel and the ACCC narrowed their focus to actual cases of market failure

Leaving aside the question of whether the ACCC has the power to act in such a matter – which arguably it doesn’t – there is the more fundamental question of why Samuel believes it is the role of government to interfere in the sale of broadcast rights to football games.

The AFL should be free to sell its own product to whoever it wants, for whatever price it wants, and under any conditions it determines. For as much as we here in Victoria might like to think otherwise, Australian rules football is not an essential commodity.

The commercial justification for the ACCC’s interference is flimsy to say the least, and if Samuel gets his way the diversity of products available to consumers could actually be reduced.

Telecommunications providers require “content”. The more material they have to broadcast the more willing customers will be to sign up. So to enhance the value of their internet broadband and mobile telephone services, companies provide extra content to subscribers – cheap legal music downloads, video rentals, movie trailers and sports.

The internet enhances the home experience of sport by increasing the content available. By bundling content with their basic internet packages, companies can offer the consumer better value.

Rather than lessening the sport available to Australians, a deal between Telstra and the AFL will provide more.

It’s about time that Samuel and the ACCC narrowed their focus to actual cases of market failure.

Why is he trying to protect us from too much sport?