Budget plea: why we must treat sugar like smoking

2020 Australian of the Year Dr James Muecke says it's time the dangers of sugar were treated like smoking or not wearing a seat belt

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Eye surgeon Dr James Muecke hopes to see federal budget spending to tackle Australia's type 2 diabetes epidemic.

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Dr James Muecke says there has never been a national, government-led strategy to raise awareness of the health dangers of excessive sugar consumption.

Dr James Muecke says there has never been a national, government-led strategy to raise awareness of the health dangers of excessive sugar consumption.

Type 2 diabetes is a rotten disease, there's no doubt about it. And it's rotting Australia to the core.

It's also a very expensive disease. Conservatively, type 2 diabetes is estimated to cost our health system, and the taxpayer, $20 billion every year.

If we then factor in that type 2 diabetes is a major contributor to hypertension, cancer, and the top three killers in our society - heart attack, dementia, and stoke - then the annual bill is more likely many multiples of that.

Our Department of Health's National Diabetes Strategy, written five years ago, aims to "lead the way internationally in diabetes management" with a vision to reduce the "social, human and economic impact in Australia", and yet type 2 diabetes and its social, human and economic costs continue to soar.

One of the key goals of the strategy is to "promote awareness .... of type 2 diabetes" and yet there has never been a national, government-led strategy to raise awareness of the dangers of excessive sugar consumption on our health or the ravages of this largely preventable dietary disease.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison with Australian of the Year Dr James Muecke at the 2020 Australian of the Year Awards in Canberra in January. Picture: Dion Georgopoulos

Prime Minister Scott Morrison with Australian of the Year Dr James Muecke at the 2020 Australian of the Year Awards in Canberra in January. Picture: Dion Georgopoulos

This is a critical time in our history to make an impact, and to hold accountable the many businesses and industries that are making us sicker and fatter.

It's also a critical time for our governments to act and enlighten all Australians to far-reaching health issues in our society beyond the dangers of smoking and the need for seat belts.

It's costing our health system more than half a billion dollars every year to manage patients who are losing limbs to gangrene caused by type 2 diabetes.

Surely this money is better spent on a powerful public awareness initiative that highlights the life-changing and life-threatening complications of such an insidious disease.

It's costing our health system more than $600 million to filter the blood of patients suffering kidney failure caused by type 2 diabetes, especially Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander patients severely afflicted by their exposure to our modern diet, high in sugar and refined carbs.

This money is surely better spent on subsidising the cost of fresh and healthy foods for remote communities where highly processed junk food reigns supreme?

It's costing our health system many tens of millions every year to extract the teeth of our children who are being enticed by sugary "treats" at every turn - at school tuck shops, school supply stores, supermarkets, even our children's hospitals. And these kids are missing out on over 50,000 vital days at school each year due to their time spent in hospital.

Surely, this money is better spent keeping kids at school and educating them towards a better future, free of the suffering caused by our sugar-laden chronic disease epidemic?

It's costing our health system more than $300 million every year to medicate patients with type 2 diabetes (according to 2015-16 data, not including complications). And these medicines don't address, and can even worsen, the high insulin level which is driving the weight gain and devastating complications of this disease.

This money would be better spent on educating medical practitioners and health educators that type 2 diabetes can be reversed in many patients, and on implementing appropriate strategies to assist them in this achievable task.

With the federal government's 2020 budget due to be handed down on October 6, I pray that some money will be set aside to achieve the goals of the National Diabetes Strategy to "reduce the impact of diabetes-related complications" and "reduce the impact of diabetes in pregnancy .... among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples". We should do it for our children, innocent victims of a country placing priority of profits over prevention.

  • South Australian eye surgeon Dr James Muecke, co-founder of eye health charity Sight For All, is the 2020 Australian of the Year. ACM, the publisher of this website, is media partner of the Australian of the Year Awards.
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