Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Belief Beyond Evidence, Evidence Beyond Belief

By Tim Olds

Will the childhood obesity epidemic condemn young people to a shorter lifespan than their parents?

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When I was born in 1955, life expectancy for Australian males was 67. Now it’s almost 80. Around the world, with very few exceptions, life expectancy is increasing at the rate of about 2.5 years each decade, and has been doing so for at least 150 years. So I was indeed surprised when I first read this in 2005:

“If we don’t get this epidemic of childhood obesity in check, for the first time in a century children will be looking forward to a shorter life expectancy than their parents.”

Just where did this idea come from? The first record of such a claim come from a US academic and paediatrician, William Klish, in the Houston Chronicle in 2002. In March 2004 the message was taken up by the US Surgeon-General, Richard Cremona. The head of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the largest US health not-for-profit, reiterated the message in Time magazine in July 2004. President Bill Clinton and Republican luminary Mike Huckabee repeated the claim in the same year.

When asked what evidence he had for his initial claim, Klish replied: “It was based on intuition”. The Surgeon-General’s spokesperson responded that he had not based his statement on empirical evidence, but rather on “some literature that he had read”. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation clarified that “a lot of policy organisations use soundbites that do not rely on scientific literature because...

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.