Monday, October 26, 2015

The war on sugar -- another example of how governments are incompetent, careless and can't be trusted

For decades, officialdom condemned fat and salt in our diets.  As contrary evidence piled up however, they have had to walk that back and the usual advice in 2015 is that LOW consumption of fat and salt is most likely to be harmful. 

But control freaks have to have something to prove their wisdom by, apparently, so in the last year or two sugar has been made the big demon.  It's utter nonsense, of course.  These days sugar is in almost everything -- including fruit straight off the tree -- and we have all been consuming piles of it for decades. So are people dying like flies?  Far from it.  Lifespans have continued their upward rise.  

And what about the effect on our waistlines?  There is no way increased weight can be clearly tied to sugar consumption.  To claim cause and effect is pure speculation.  There have been all sorts of lifestyle changes in recent years and the sheer cheapness of food these days is actually the most likely culprit for "obesity".  Within living memory it was a real worry for parents to put enough food on the table for their families, but big advances in agricultural practice, distribution (big supermarkets) and international trade have steadily brought real food prices down to the point where no-one in the developed world need go hungry. These days Oliver Twist can always have "More" if he wants it. And many people now DO want it.

After the about-face on fat and salt, I think that alone should make us cynical but there is also no good research backing up this latest fad.  There is research but it is all flaky. I spent many years as a health blogger so I know what the evidence against sugar is:  It is all either in vivo (rodent studies) or epidemiological.  But rodent studies generalize poorly to humans and you CANNOT infer cause from epidemiological studies. If you want to know what rubbish is spouted in the name of epidemiology, grab John Brignell's little book: The Epidemiologists: Have They Got Scares for You!
IT’S becoming a public enemy up there with the likes of fat, salt and smoking.

Now a much-anticipated report has put sugar barons on notice, recommending a 10-20 per cent “sugar tax” on soft drinks and moves to limit the marketing and promotion of sugary foods to children.

Public Health England’s document has been more than a year in the making and has slammed the food-friendly environment that has left the UK bulging at the seams.

“The whole food environment and culture has changed slowly over the last 30 to 40 years. There are now more places to buy and eat food which is, in real terms, cheaper, more convenient, served in bigger portion sizes and subject to more marketing and promotions than ever before,” it said, adding that the continually expanding swath of restaurants, cafes and fast-food means simple labelling laws aren’t enough.

The public health body is calling for a 10-20 per cent tax on sugary drinks which are the main single source of sugar for school-aged children. It also wants to see a crackdown on marketing and promotions that target children directly, better labelling an overhaul of public facilities and messages like the “five a day” campaign to ensure they are cutting through.

“It is likely that price increases on specific high sugar products like sugar sweetened drinks, such as through fiscal measures like a tax or levy, if set high enough, would reduce purchasing at least in the short term,” the report said.

Sugar is becoming in the latest battleground in the fight against global obesity following on from fat and salt. It’s estimated to make up 12-15 per cent of UK diets, much of which is disguised in sauces, mayonnaise, cereals or alcohol. The public health body wants it cut back to less than five per cent in accordance with World Health Organisation guidelines, to prevent a host of health problems from obesity to diabetes and dental decay which cost billions a year in healthcare.

But despite the high-profile support, the recommendations are unlikely to come into effect. A spokesman for UK Prime Minister David Cameron has said he would not support the idea. The British Soft Drinks Association director general Gavin Partington said they “recognise industry has a role to play in tackling obesity” but don’t believe it has had a significant impact.

In Australia, a recent survey found more than 80 per cent of people are in favour of a tax on sugary drinks which could earn the government $250 million a year to fight obesity. At present, almost two in three Australian adults are obese or overweight, with 10 per cent more obese people than 20 years ago, according to government statistics.

Nutritionist Susie Burrell said she would “absolutely” love to see a “junk tax” introduced in Australia that goes beyond sugar to cover fast food, confectionary and soft drinks.

“Isolating sugar is failing to look at the complexity of nutrition and the way people eat. Portion size and fried foods are just as big an issue as sugar is,” she told “Any scheme that would generate revenue to be used in the treatment of obesity, Type 2 diabetes and heart disease would be welcomed.”

“As sugar based drinks are closely related to weight gain and a number of disease risk factors it makes sense to tax these foods as a way to help pay for the enormous health costs associated with overweight and obesity in Australia.”

The department of health and Coca-Cola have failed to respond to requests for comment.


Is the Australian Liberty Alliance the next "One Nation"?

THE launch of an anti-Islam party in Australia has raised concerns about whether multiculturalism actually works.

Far-right Dutch politician Geert Wilders launched the Australian Liberty Alliance in Perth this week, promising to stop the Islamisation of Australia, as extremist groups like Islamic State stoke fears of terrorism and distrust within the community.

It’s not a unique development with Mr Wilders noting that “like-minded parties” were enjoying great success in Austria, Sweden, France and Switzerland.

Even in Germany, where many were recently pictured welcoming an influx of refugees from places like Syria and Iraq, there were fears of a far right resurgence in response.

Chancellor Angela Merkel has seen her approval rating drop to its lowest level since 2011 and there have been attacks on places housing refugees. A recent anti-immigration rally in the country attracted up to 20,000 people.

Earlier this year a headline in Germany’s weekly newspaper Der  Spiegel asked the question: “Is the ugly German back?”

Australians could be asking the same question of themselves as anti-Islamic sentiment sees the re-emergence of divisive figures like Pauline Hanson. A recent Facebook post from the One Nation leader opposing “mosques, Sharia law, halal certification and Muslim refugees” was shared more than 25,000 times in just two days.

But despite the apparent growing public backlash, experts believe organisations like ALA will continue to appeal to just a small number of people, and that multiculturalism still enjoys wide support, especially in Australia.

“There will always be a segment of the community that is not happy with change,” Professor Andrew Markus told

“We shouldn’t be surprised that there is a group in Australia opposed to cultural diversity and immigration but what makes Australia different is that the size of that minority is very small.”

Prof Markus of Monash University has been tracking changes in Australian attitudes towards immigrants and asylum seekers since 2007 as part of the Scanlon Foundation’s Mapping Social Cohesion Project. He said the last two surveys showed strong support for multiculturalism.

When asked whether multiculturalism was good for Australia, 84 per cent of Australians surveyed in 2013 agreed that it was, and 85 per cent agreed in 2014.

“It’s quite an amazing number and was consistent across Australia, it was hard to find anywhere in Australia, including those in rural areas, where support dropped much below 75 per cent,” Prof Markus said.

But the situation in Europe or even America was very different.

Prof Markus said a British study found 75 per cent its population wanted immigration reduced in 2014 but a comparable study in Australia found only 35 per cent believed immigration was too high.

Prof Markus said Australians saw multiculturalism as being good for the economy and for the integration of immigrants.  “I think people understand and accept it’s who we are,” he said, adding that 45 per cent of the population had at least one parent born overseas.

He said he would be surprised ALA got much traction within the community, and this could also be a sign of the times.

“This country has undergone very significant change over the course of a generation,” Prof Markus said.  “Young people today have grown up in a world very different to their parents,” and their attitude towards immigration or cultural diversity is likely to be “it’s life, this is it, get on with it”.

While this was not true for everybody, Prof Markus said the issues that were significant for their parents were not as prominent for their children.

Even though groups such as One Nation had managed to gain support in the 1990s, Prof Markus said that was 20 years ago and there had been a lot of water under the bridge since then.

“At its peak it got 22 per cent of the vote in the Queensland state election and since that time (leader) Pauline Hanson has struggled to get even one tenth of that,” he said.

UNSW Associate Professor Geoffrey Brahm Levey, an Australian Research Council Future Fellow in Political Science, agrees that parties like the ALA only appeal to a small number of people, but he acknowledged that the group did reflect genuine concerns.

“There is a genuine problem within the Islamic and Muslim community with radicalisation ... and that naturally provokes anxiety among populations,” Prof Levey said.

“People are right to be concerned when they see members of the public act violently or unacceptably but the problem is a relatively small one.”

He said the overwhelming majority of the 300,000 plus Muslims in Australia had integrated into the community.


Some jokes are not allowed these days

I have myself joked about "poofter drinks" (mixed drinks) in my wicked past, so I know it was a joke

A MELBOURNE bar owner has “unreservedly apologised” after pub goers took offence at an apparently homophobic sign.

A menu board at Handsome Steve’s House of Refreshment, in Fitzroy, listed items such as “Lemonade of honour”, “Whine”, “Geelong premiership years” as well as “No poofter drinks”, reported the Herald Sun.

The bar’s Facebook page has been bombarded by angry comments after a group of customers complained about the sign hanging in the bar on Saturday night.

“Homophobia is alive and well in this business. Time for management to grow up,” wrote Nic Gwynne. “It's not edgy or cool to bring back being a homophobic bro. It's f**king boring. Try harder next time,” Taylor Di Pasquale added.

Owner Steve Miller said the sign had been up for seven years, was not meant to cause offence and people, including gay customers, found it hilarious.  “If I’ve given offence to anybody, I unconditionally apologise. I unreservedly apologise,” Mr Miller told the Herald Sun.

Convener of the Gay and Lesbian Rights Lobby, Justin Koonin, told if it was a joke, it was in very poor taste.  “What seems funny to one person can be most hurtful to another. It is important to think about the impact language can have on those who are most vulnerable.”

Koonin said taking down the sign was the right thing to do.


Health fund covers 88-year-old man for baby but not hip replacement

ELDERLY men are being sold health insurance that covers them for having a baby but not a hip replacement as private hospitals warn health fund exclusions have reached crisis point.

Taxpayers spend $6 billion a year subsidising private health insurance but the number of people who find their fund doesn’t cover their surgery has tripled in the last few years.

Just days after the consumer watchdog, the ACCC, set up an inquiry to put health funds through the wringer, a News Corp investigation has found many people are finding their health funds desert them when they need help.

Among the issues uncovered:

* More than half of all health fund members now have policies that include one or more restrictions on treatments like joint replacement, cardiac surgery or other treatments.

* Insurers are changing the types of procedures covered by policies after they are taken out without properly informing members.

* Health funds are signing people up to products that are inappropriate for their needs.

* Health fund brokers like iselect and Compare the Market are driving up the cost of health insurance by charging commissions as high as $800.

* The private health insurance ombudsman received a total of 3427 complaints in 2013-14, a 16 per cent increase on complaints the previous year.

St Vincents Health Care which runs nine hospitals in NSW, QLD and Victoria says the problems have to be fixed to stop public hospitals being overloaded.

The hospital groups’ chief executive Toby Hall says his hospitals find a handful of people every day have to be turned away because their health fund does not cover the procedure they need.
Time to fix the problem ... St Vincents Health Care chief executive Toby Hall says his hospitals have to turn people away every day

Time to fix the problem ... St Vincents Health Care chief executive Toby Hall says his hospitals have to turn people away every daySource:Supplied

“The scale of this issue is triple what it was in the past,” Hall says.

“It has become a regular thing, a few people a day are coming in either not understanding their cover or having being sold cover that is inappropriate.”

And he’s laying some of the blame on health fund brokers like iSelect and Compare the Market which are paid commissions to sign people up to products that turn out to be inappropriate.

Fifty-one-year-old Daren Robinson was told by insurance broker iSelect he could save $10 a month if he switched from AHM basic cover to HCF basic cover.

Last week he discovered while his old health fund would have covered the shoulder surgery he has booked for Monday, it is not covered by his new fund and he faces a bill for $9,500.

“I thought basic was basic, I thought I was getting the same deal,” he says.

Matt Cumming from iSelect said it always conducted a thorough analysis of a customers needs when selling insurance and would investigate the case.

Mr Hall says a regulator needs to oversee health fund brokers, they need to be fined if they sign people up to inappropriate products and be evicted from the marketplace if it continues.

And he says health funds can’t continue to justify seven per cent annual premium rises if they continue to cut the procedures they pay for without informing their members.

Private Healthcare Australia chief Dr Michael Armitage says the problems caused by exclusions in health fund policies are a “direct result” of the previous Labor Government’s means test on private health insurance.

“It has led inevitably, as it was always going to, an increasing number of people under financial pressure taking out policies with exclusions or front end deductibles,” he said.

Some of the problems health fund members presenting to St Vincent’s have encountered include:

* An 88-year-old man had to be turned away from the hospital recently because his new health fund product covered him for having a baby but not a hip replacement or ophthalmology.

* A 43-year-old woman had to pay $3,300 for her sinus surgery after she found her health fund covered tonsils and adenoids but not sinus surgery.

* A 37-year-old found her private health insurance covered her for the procedure to identify her condition (a sigmoidoscope) but not the procedure to fix the problem (a fissurectomy). She paid out of her own pocket.

* A 32-year-old female requiring gynaecological procedure had to pay for her surgery because her fund classified it as obstetrics even though Medicare does not.

* Many women with breast cancer have found they are covered for a mastectomy, but not post-mastectomy cosmetic surgery.

Medibank chief George Saviddes has blamed health fund comparator websites for pushing up the price of health cover claiming they charged commissions worth as much as $800 per policy.

News Corp understands the commissions charged are around 30 per cent of the policy’s price.

Commissions paid to these websites are funded from the insurers’ advertising budgets, which reportedly rose $90m between 2007 and 2012, consumer group Choice reports.

Consumer group Choice reviewed comparison sites and says the businesses denied commissions are linked with their product recommendations, but warns “the potential for conflicts of interest is still pretty clear”.

Compare the market spokeswoman wouldn’t reveal the commissions her organisation charges but claims they are “only a low percentage” of the product price.

“The reason health funds participate is it’s a particularly cost effective was of acquiring new members, television advertising is really expensive,” she says.

Matt Cumming from iSelect agreed health cover affordability was becoming an issue but in the last year most of the 130,000 people his group helped were looking at health fund policy features.


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