Category Archives: society

The obesity epidemic and the victimisation of children

Melbourne newspaper, The Age, today had a good piece by paediatrician Zoe McCallum, talking about the problems of dealing with children’s weight in a constructive way. The rhetoric of the believers in the obesity epidemic is strident and frequently demeaning, and initiatives to improve child health run the risk of damaging children.

I’ve written elsewhere (at I eat I drink I work — Article: A lightweight epidemic?) about obesity and the poor evidence for a global epidemic, dubious causes and suitable treatments. Zoe McCallum of course follows the standard ‘wisdom’ that treats the obesity ‘crisis’ as fact, but that notwithstanding, I liked her main point.

A personal perspective on binge-drinking and social policy on alcohol


The New Prohibition. Australia’s battle against alcoholism, especially under-age and binge drinking, has been in the spotlight over the last weeks. The main targets have been (1) high-alcohol prepackaged drinks which are popular with younger drinkers, and (2) adults giving children alcohol. Proposed solutions have been stronger penalties for supplying alcohol to children, graphic warnings on packaging and even the idea of raising the legal drinking age to 21. In the NSW city of Newcastle, a recent administrative ruling has imposed suprisingly tight controls on licensed venues, including entry curfews and serving restrictions. The concerns are valid, but the message and solutions are often strong on control and weak on social initiative.

The frequency of teenagers drinking alcohol to excess, typically in concentrated sessions (binge drinking), has apparently reached at least 10% in 12-17 year olds, with 20% of 15-17 year olds binge drinking at least once a week. Certainly, the number of kids visibly drunk on late night public transport or leaving private parties seems higher than I can remember.

Advocates of a healthy approach to alcohol consumption in Australia speak of ‘European-style drinking culture’ or the ‘Mediterranean model’, where alcohol is often served as part of a meal and even relatively young family members are exposed to this ‘wholesome’ context for consuming alcohol. Critics of this approach claim that Australian mainstream (subtext: Anglo) culture is not predisposed to this pattern of drinking (due to different cultural uses and social behaviours) and some attention has been given to a report in 2007 that indicated a link between early exposure to alcohol and later binge drinking. The claim is that well intentioned parents wanting to socialise children to the presence of alcohol are in fact endangering their children, and responsible Australian parents should instead stigmatise alcohol so as to discourage any positive associations.

Stigmatising anything which forms part of normal adult activity is rarely successful. The same applies to traditional cultural behaviours. Providing a good example is surely a far better approach. I spent five years in a country which excels at stigmatising alcohol consumption whilst having a culture of severe, obsessive binge-drinking: Sweden. My time there changed my view of drinking fundamentally.

When I moved to Sweden in 1992, I had never seen drinking in such a ritualised, unmoderated form. I read frequent news stories of illegal stills being found by police. I saw friends of mine turn violent when they drank. I watched alcoholised fights break out on the cheap catamarans that plied the Malmö-Copenhagen route (a trip of just 45 minutes). I sat on the bus to work in the morning with well dressed business people stinking of stale or fresh spirit.

In a country where all forms of booze except low-alcohol beer (<3.5%) were only sold in sparsely distributed government shops (Systembolaget), all displayed behind glass and ordered at a counter, the volume of smashed glass and the stench of urine on a Sunday morning left you in no doubt as to how many people had queued at the local Systembolaget before closing time on Friday. Despite this, Sweden has relatively low per capita alcohol consumption (7 litres pure alcohol). Australians drink over 8 litres. Drinkers in France, Russia or Luxemburg consume considerably more. The discrepancy between, say, Sweden and Australia would appear to be that a smaller proportion of Swedes drink, but those who do really do!

Sweden has a long tradition of controlling alcohol consumption, aware of the social ills it causes. A strong temperance movement has existed for centuries, often closely affiliated with more conservative Christian groups (of which there are many). For a long period citizens needed to use alcohol ‘ration books’ as permits to buy some types of alcohol. Blacklists were maintained. An enduring memory of an early Swedish lesson was a story involving an elderly man being refused the right to buy vodka. His ration book had been annulled because he’d been charged with drunkenness. The social stigma surrounding alcohol was enormous and remains so.

None of this seemed to improve the psychology of alcohol consumption. Nordic taxes on alcohol are so high that alcohol tourism is common. Before Sweden and Finland joined the EU, cross-Baltic ferries were famous for the males and females who would drink themselves to a stupor on tax-free liquor before buying their maximum import quota and stumbling down the gangway to notionally dry (but rather dizzy) land.

On that dry land in the mid-90s, a modest pub might charge A$12 for an average draught beer. Many people would hastily drink two or three beers at a friend’s place before heading out for a night on the town, for fear of the prices once inside a venue.

Prior to moving to Sweden I had no particular opinion about drinking. I had been a mild drinker as a student in Australia, occasionally getting drunk socially and otherwise having a normal relationship with drink. In the early 90s, I developed a physical intolerance for alcohol (in essence, hangover-like symptoms within half an hour of a sip of beer or wine) and that made it impossible for me to imbibe any liquor. It was very bad timing. Life in Sweden meant constantly parrying suspicious or pressing questions about booze: ‘are you sure you don’t want a drink?’, ‘are you a prohibitionist?’, ‘what about a light beer?’. I never worked out which was worse there – not drinking or not eating seafood!

Many years have passed, and my body now tolerates alcohol fine in careful moderation. My attitude to drinking, however, has changed. I’m exceedingly uneasy around even moderately drunk people. I detest enthusiastic heavy drinking, and I rarely have any desire to step foot inside a bar or pub.

On the other hand, I don’t oppose drinking. I dislike the curiously fatalist view of some health industry commentators who believe the Mediterranean model can’t work here because we have the wrong drinking culture. That seems a neat way of promoting prohibition over behavioural modification. When responsible parents tell journalists that they promote healthy attitudes to alcohol by permitting moderate consumption on special occasions, their motives are worthy but the approach fits the vodka-belt mode of drinking quite well. If you associate alcohol primarily with celebration (a particularly common setting for excessive drinking) then you just perpetuate the unusual role of drinking.

I certainly feel that alcopops and ready-to-drink (RTD) mixes have absolutely no place on the market as they facilitate casual, effortless alcohol consumption, especially in young drinkers or people with drinking problems. I believe that adults who supply kids with certain forms of alcohol should face severe penalties, especially if they then leave the kids unsupervised.

However, the battle against binge-drinking won’t be won through blind restriction and lecturing. So why not try behaviour modification in the home and in restaurants – the two places where ‘normalised’ drinking needs to find a place. Moderate consumption needs to be dull and normal. Make limited consumption of wine or beer the norm at everyday meals. Encourage restaurants to offer house wines in small carafes. Our wine-drinking-as-connoisseur behaviour perhaps even undermines the hope for normalising mild drinking because it makes wine too special. The mixed bag of wines that serve as house wines in France and southern Europe moves the emphasis away from vineyards, vintages and restaurant markups and just makes wine another incidental drink with a simple meal. Something tells me Australia’s restaurateurs would baulk at a loss of income from their winelist margins.

I doubt there’s the will to take constructive action on alcohol in Australia. There are too many parties whose profits depend on current consumption patterns. It’s probably too hard to convince generations of celebratory-drinking Australians that things can be done differently. And policy-makers aren’t so keen on nuance at the moment. It’s easier to tut-tut, blindly castigate parents, and ban a nice Cointreau on the rocks after 10pm.

Does Slow Food know its audience and goals?


Melbourne is alive with the annual Melbourne Food and Wine Festival. A special event as part of the two-week festival is ‘A Taste of Slow’, held this weekend. There aren’t a lot of spoken word events at the Festival; there are a lot of interesting demonstrations, classes and dining experiences. By ‘spoken word’ I of course mean something more than ‘this is how you cook ingredient X’ — I’m looking for something more intellectually stimulating than that.

Three years ago, the Festival held a number of interesting panel discussions in conjunction with a trade fair (Fine Food) and the level of information and discussion was reasonably good. Since then, my memory tells me that the only spoken word affairs have been on the Slow Food side of things. Nothing wrong with that per se, but the topics for discussion are narrowed by the simple fact that Slow Food has specific things it wants to talk about and it attracts certain types of people.

That was a rather long preamble to a long comment about some of this year’s spoken word events. I attended two of yesterday’s sessions:

  • What is Slow Food?
  • Wellbeing and pleasure

I came away with a numb bum and the feeling that Slow Food is still failing to get its message across or perhaps even to know what its message is.

The events actually started on Friday evening, with a keynote by Greg Critser about his book ‘Fat Land: How Americans Became the Fattest People in the World’ and the reactions to it. I had to miss this due to a more important commitment, but in hindsight it’s a pity, because this talk seems to indicate a new direction for Slow Food.

The first Saturday session, ‘What is Slow Food?’ was billed as:

Did you know that Slow Food supports a gastronomic university and a foundation for saving rare and endangered foods? Speaking from personal experiences, members of the Australian Slow Food movement, Daniela Mollica, Bob MacLennan and Christine Bond explore the concepts and projects that ate at the heart of the Slow philosophy.

If it had started on time, my bum wouldn’t have got as numb on the attractive but really rather hard seats in the BMW Edge auditorium at Federation Square. Mistress of Ceremonies, radio personality Helen Razer, thought she was being funny when she hoped ‘that everyone had travelled here at snail’s pace’. The organisers certainly had.

Daniela Mollica gave us a bit of her resumé, talked about her rare-breed cattle (Chianina), and provided a brief history of Slow Food in Melbourne and the Convivium (local chapter) that she helped found. She’s aware of many of the issues which concern Slow Food and the misconceptions about what Slow Food is, and she covered many points in an attempt to make a few things clear.

Bob MacLennan (Brisbane) talked about the ‘Ark of Taste’ which acts as a sort of registry for endangered traditional foods. He told us a little about the four Australian foods in the Ark (bunyanuts, bullboar sausages, leatherwood honey, Kangaroo Island Honey), showed us a mini-documentary about the breeders of mangalica pigs in Hungary and the starting of ‘Presidia’ (quality control projects), and then some film of initiation rites in Papua New Guinea. The latter was ostensibly relevant to his mention of giant yams, but the focus drifted.

Christine Bond (Darwin/Top End) started off by talking about food and history in the Top End but rapidly moved to telling us all about her Convivium’s activities and the practicalities of setting up and running a Convivium. At times it verged on the irrelevant for a Festival audience. Finally, we heard that her Convivium runs basic cookery classes. A noble endeavour, but it begs the question whether 99% of cookery books and classes are therefore ‘slow’.

It’s difficult running a movement-profile session when much of your audience might already know what Slow Food is, but others may have come because they knew nothing. A diverse audience requires a bit more than this hodgepodge. ‘Convivium’ was defined eventually. ‘Ark of Taste’ wasn’t explained fully, if I recall correctly, and the mysterious ‘Presidia’ suffered grammatically and conceptually. I don’t know if the speakers were given a clear brief, but after Daniela’s fairly good start it became less and less clear what the session wanted to achieve. As it was running so late, there was no chance for audience participation either — it would have been interesting to see why people attended and what they really wanted to know.

The second Saturday session, ‘Wellbeing and pleasure’, was described as:

Author Sherry Strong explains how slow, local and organic were never fads in nature, but simply the most convenient way to eat. Jane Dixon discusses how the supermarkets have weighed in on the debate about healthy eating. Chef Tony Chiodo demonstrates how easy it is to savour the simple pleasures of fresh, seasonal and healthy food.

And then it ran off the rails a bit. I didn’t expect to hear clichés about obesity and culture, or endure junk science and scare-mongering. That’s what we got to listen to.


Jane Dixon’s well structured talk (an academic with a clear Powerpoint presentation) started interestingly, looking at the conundrum of supermarkets offering healthy convenience food and, more broadly, the oft-ignored fact that supermarkets have offered a lot of improvements for our health and diet. It was inevitable that these topics would be left underexplored in a fairly short presentation with a diverse audience, but I wished there was a little more information beyond the very general facts.

However, Dixon then wheeled out a few clichés which work well with a sympathetic audience but leave a bad taste if you think about them:

  • she placed interesting emphasis on ‘supermarket aisles full of fruit juices with their sugars’ and that set off an alarm because part of the obesity-crisis lobby is currently targeting fruit juice as a villain.
  • She then cited a study showing that time spent in one’s car is linked to obesity (and supermarkets cause us to sit in our cars).
  • Then we had the ‘Europeans value quality over quantity’ claptrap — that’s right, France has no burger chains full of adults and teens, French cheese isn’t heavy on fat, and the ever-popular ‘formules’ (set menus) aren’t too large and nutritionally unbalanced.

Somewhere close to the end we heard the wonderfully incongruous ‘food is fuel now’ (as opposed to in the good old times when women slaved at the stove churning out meals for their (presumably not always taste-interested) husbands and children to eat, or (heavens!) when people had access to barely any dietary variety and of course were stone-soup gourmets as they dined in their medieval huts). Food is just ‘fuel’ now, yet we spend so much time talking about it, dining out, trying new food fads, falling victim to gourmet-product markups… ??

Sherry Strong’s talk was passionate and well rehearsed, but in the way an evangelist spreads a message through motivating or scaring and choosing their rhetoric very carefully.

‘The further we deviate from nature, the sicker, bigger we’re getting.’ ‘In nature you’d never think to store an apple for twelve months or to cover it in chemicals.’

I’d love a definition of what ‘nature’ is in this sort of empty argumentation. Individual overweight humans have been observed for quite a large part of history. Preserving food using almost any technique and useful substance available isn’t exactly new. Burying food stuffs or storing them in caves to get through long cold (or hot) periods is simply the precursor to the cold cabinet.

Perhaps the absolute stunner for the day was the broad-stroke assertion that processing things with chemicals makes them dangerous to you. Let me paraphrase closely: No-one has an addiction to poppy seeds, but look what happens when you make heroin out of them. Now think about all that over-processed oil and refined sugar. Oh my god. I think I need one of those Jamie Oliver ‘Flavour Shakers’ — I’d fill it with powdered nuance and sprinkle it liberally.

On a lighter note, pleasant and likeable chef Tony Chiodo chatted about health and healthy eating and whipped up two soups.


I’m sure there are lots of people caught up in the ideology being spruiked in this session and who would have agreed wholeheartedly with what was being said. By its very nature, Slow Food must attract people concerned about issues, but it can also serve an educative role. So much of the public discourse about food and eating exploits fears, misconceptions and rose-tinted nostalgia to persuade people to believe. Was this what the organisers of A Taste of Slow wanted in this session?

Across these two sessions, there was interesting information provided and points for discussion raised, but I felt the weaknesses were embarrassing. Spoken word events could be used to inform, explain, elaborate and challenge, but instead the first session was poorly thought out and the second (and perhaps other parts of the program as a whole) seem to be a path of ideology. It worries me, particularly, that the obesity-crisis lobby is gaining a voice under the Slow Food banner. I don’t see what legitimate role obesity clichés have within a movement that is meant to focus positively on food and cultural tradition. Daniela Mollica ended her talk by saying that Slow Food was about being ‘inclusive and positive, not exclusive and negative’, but those values will be hard to maintain if people who spend their time obsessing about negatives (evil supermarkets, evil industry, evil scientists, evil processed food) are embraced without question by Slow Food.

On chocolate, child slavery and a newspaper

Something interesting is going on at The Age newspaper in Melbourne. In the space of eight days, the newspaper has published two pieces about slavery in the West African cocoa growing industry. In September it also published a piece about this issue by a prominent Christian activist and anti-slavery campaigner from Britain, Steve Chalke.

Oddly, The Age’s sister publication in Sydney, the Sydney Morning Herald, has published none of these. Nor have competing newspapers shown any interest at all in the cocoa+slavery issue (I’ve searched through the News Limited stable, including

ABC radio has done one piece in the last six years, and that was an interview on The Religion Report with the same British campaigner on 26 September this year. I’m not aware of any television reports (certainly none at the ABC).

I’m wary of campaigners and bandwagons, and was therefore rather suspicious of The Age’s sudden repeated interest in the issue. I haven’t yet found a particular source for the information repeated in the articles, so although it might smell of press-release journalism, that doesn’t seem to be the case.

Are we dealing with (1) a newspaper driven campaign, (2) familiar sloppy editorial control, or (3) a successful lobbying campaign which is only finding resonance at The Age? The issue of slavery in the cocoa industry is not new by any means (most of the material you’ll find out there relates to studies and media reports from the late 1990s/early 2000s. There have also been initiatives to combat slavery at an industry level and from other, especially religious, organisations. Many Australian religious organisations (Caritas, Salvation Army, etc) have cocoa+slavery material on their websites and do appear to have been concentrating on chocolate this year (and Hughes is known to write on issues of interest to Catholic organisations). I would venture a guess that this is because of, in part, the Stop the Traffik campaign led by the abovementioned Steve Chalke.

Why now? I haven’t found any new findings or comments about deterioration in the industry. In fact, it seems that there are indications of a reduction in (and/or original overstatement of) the levels of slavery since the first reports 5-10 years ago. It has also been found that, although slavery definitely exists in the West African cocoa industry, the vast majority (over 90%) of the children being forced to work are not slaves but instead local family members. That’s an issue of child labour. A report (Nkamleu and Kielland, 2006) prepared as part of the UN/ILO assessment of child labour in the cocoa industry observed that more than 50% of children (6-17yo) in farmer families in Côte d’Ivoire were involved in the cocoa production process, many of them in hazardous activities.

The piece in The Age by Steve Chalke deliberately confounds slavery and child labour. Juliette Hughes’s piece does little other than to say ‘hey there are some ethical issues here’, while the piece by Carmel Egan also mixes up slavery and child labour, though actually states figures which show the difference in numbers.

I’m not writing this to engage in a debate about the morality of eating chocolate — clearly there are enough people out there telling us not to, unless it’s Fairtrade (or equivalent) — but instead to draw attention to the sudden attention the slavery issue is getting in one newspaper. If anyone can throw any light on what’s going on, I’d be very interested.

– DM

About showing one’s undies

Man. Woman. Curdled custard. Authors have made millions from explorations (in print {ehem}) of the seemingly incomprehensible differences between the hairier and the curvier sexes. Talk of Venus and Mars, emotion vs logic, blahdiblah. All those tiresome clichés over the barbecue — the blokes in the garden moaning about their missuses (the plural of wife) and the ladies loitering in the kitchen whinging about their useless insensitive hubbies.

Deepening the male-female mutual comprehension divide — for those who experience it — there seems to be yet another point of difference. My Google homepage, which serves up a range of feeds from news services, sciency things and other trivia, suddenly delivered me into the world of flashing one’s underwear. One of the feeds is from wikiHow. It tells people all sorts of useful things like how to survive falling through ice on a lake, how to fold a napkin, how to become a sophisticated adult (I passed). On the day in question, the featured article was How to Get out of a Car Gracefully Without Showing Your Underwear

Now, I don’t know about you, dearest fully-clad reader, but I ain’t never shown me knickers whilst disembarking from an automobile. It was a danger I had never imagined. Life as a male can be so innocent. Are women everywhere living in fear of that first step out of their car? Afraid of lecherous men hiding behind carpark pillars? Secret cameras embedded in the pavement next to the parking meter?

I clicked the link through to the full article and understood the problem immediately. Just look at the educational image.

I mean, she’d show her undies if she so much as breathed deeply. Scandalous. No wonder the advice includes:

Even if you’re careful, you might end up showing a glimpse of your underwear. Make sure they’re clean and flattering just in case.


The solution is quite technical and I shan’t bore you with the multi-step instructions for exiting the vehicle. It’s a mixture of dance-step and yoga. The advice to:

Practice in private before you go out, and have a friend watch you so you can make sure you look good and you’re not showing off your underwear.

seems particularly important. If you have no sense of rhythm, ladies, I’d say your best bet is to wear culottes.

I’ve been digesting the article’s words of wisdom over the past days. Watching people getting out of cars. Observing people on trains and trams. Staring at women in cafés. I just don’t see the problem. Or, more to the point, I think the problem has been obviated. Have you noticed, dear suited-up reader, that people are showing their undies all over the place? Why worry about knicker-no-nos while getting out of a car if half the population is already showing the back of their G-strings at Sunday brunch?

Although I at first felt this was a girlie problem, I now believe one should be much more concerned about male undies. We’ve become inured to the once-outrageous fashion of displaying the branded elastic waist of men’s briefs. Now that every Brad and his mate is showing his Calvins or Aussiebums, it’s a disappointment when someone’s t-shirt rides up to reveal an absence of branded elastic. While men-with-undies thought they were groundbreakingly risqué, ‘ghetto’ boys had been letting half their bum hang out of their jeans for quite a while already.

If anybody has been looking (the mothers in the audience might nod in horrified agreement), a good proportion of the under-20 population has been showing rather more than their waist band recently. Yesterday, on an innocent suburban train journey, I copped an eyeful of a teenager’s right buttock. His jeans slid below the leg of his briefs as he got up to leave the carriage. It’s a wonder he could still walk when the beltline of the jeans was so dangerously low. And what was keeping the jeans up at all?

With G-strings at brunch and buttocks on the daily commute, getting out of a car without showing one’s undergarments is quite obviously a redundant concern.

– DM