Higher fuel prices could cut obesity costs: study

Increasing Australia’s fuel excise could increase physical activity levels and cut more than $30 million from Australia’s annual obesity-related health bill, a new study suggests.

The researchers from Deakin University reviewed 12 studies on the relationship between petrol prices and people’s use of “active transport”.

They then used data modelling to show how an increase in Australia’s fuel excise by 10 cents per litre might cause more commuters to think twice before jumping in their car to get to work,according to findings in journal BMC Public Health.

“Exploratory modelling, using plausible estimates associated with modal switch to public transport (PT) demonstrates that a fuel excise taxation intervention may provide small individual level benefits in a relatively small subset of the Australian population,” the authors wrote. “If the effect is maintained over time however, these relatively small changes could lead to relatively large population level health gains.”

Fuel increase could promote active transport Lead author Vicki Brown, a PhD student at Deakin Health Economics, said the study showed that the increase in commuting via active transport prompted by higher fuel prices could have a significant impact on Australia’s waistlines, and therefore spending on obesity-related health issues.

“Physical inactivity is a global health problem. In Australia, in 2012, only 2 per cent of the employed population rode to work and just 4 per cent walked,” Ms Brown said.

“Research has shown that middle-aged adults who commute via active transport have a lower BMI than car-driving commuters, one BMI point less on average for men and 0.7 less for women.

“Active transport is defined as walking, cycling and using public transport, and is a great way to help reach the recommended adult guideline levels of 150 to 300 minutes of physical activity per week.”

Overseas fuel policies

Anecdotally, some countries with a high prevalence of active transport also had high fuel prices, including in the Netherlands, she said.

“Australia currently has the fourth lowest fuel price of OECD countries and the proportional tax levied is also low, and has been decreasing for several years,” she said.

Ms Brown said the cost of increased petrol prices would be vastly outweighed by wider savings.

“Our ‘plausible scenario’ estimate of $34.2 million in health savings doesn’t take into account other potential costs, including personal costs – parking, tolls, and travel-time – as well as public savings – decongestion and environmental benefits.

“If the effect that we’re estimating is maintained over time, these relatively small changes could lead to huge population level health gains.”

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