Tax reform will let us peddle a healthier life cycle (Canberra Times)
6 May 2010
By Don Henry and Lyn Roberts
As our climate changes, as cities become more congested, as obesity
rates rise and participation in physical activity continues to fall, you
would think our political leaders would be keen to get us off our
backsides and into more active ways of moving around our communities.
Yet, with a few exceptions, our politicians don’t much like to talk
about public and active transport. But the Henry tax review has finally
brought the issue into focus with recommendations that encourage ‘user
pays’ for the damage that car dependency causes to people and the
More than half the doctors’ consultations in Australia are for chronic
conditions such as heart disease, diabetes and cancer.
The burden of chronic disease is projected to dramatically increase,
with combined spending on cardiovascular and respiratory disease, for
example, set to be about $40 billion a year by 2032-33. The link between
physical inactivity and ill health wasn’t always obvious.
It was the famous London bus men’s study published in the Lancet in 1954
that awoke the world to the stark relationship between inactivity and
disease. It showed bus drivers who sat on their bottoms all day had much
higher rates of heart attack than bus conductors who were on their feet
The idea that inactivity caused heart disease was so revolutionary few
believed it at the time.
Now we know physical inactivity is a major modifiable risk factor for
cardiovascular disease such as heart attack and stroke and a range of
other chronic diseases. In fact, the World Health Organisation’s 2009
report on Global Health Risks, Mortality and Burden of Disease rated
inactivity the fourth leading cause, responsible for more than two
million deaths. Being physically active for just 30 minutes a day
reduces the risk of coronary disease, colon cancer, breast cancer and
ischaemic stroke and saves the taxpayer-funded healthcare system
billions of dollars.
The British Chief Medical Officer, Sir Liam Donaldson, has said the
“potential benefits of physical activity to health are huge. If a
medication existed which had a similar effect, it would be regarded as a
‘wonder drug’ or ‘miracle cure’.” In making the connection between
active transportation and climate change Donaldson said, “…the threat
of climate change should provide sufficient impetus for action to
substantially increase cycling and walking as common forms of
Yes, more people walking, cycling and taking public transport is good
for public health and good for the environment.
So what is active transport? In essence, it’s about shifting emphasis
not necessarily about donning lycra.
It means walking, cycling or using public transport more often. It’s
about building physical activity into our daily lives. In cold old
Britain, they’ve decided to follow the lead of continental counterparts
such as Denmark and the Netherlands.
The Brits are putting European level funding about $28 a head to promote
cycling in selected demonstration towns.
And they’re getting fast returns. Not only are more people cycling and
walking, but the investments are yielding a three-to- one return on
every pound spent on the cycling strategy and a massive seven-to-one
return for every pound spent on the Health Walks initiative.
Australia has made a good start on active transport initiatives, such as
support for walking programs and cycling infrastructure, but there is a
long way to go. Recent infrastructure spending on public and active
transport came in the form of economic stimulus money a product of the
global financial crisis.
Unless action is taken, that investment will be a one-off boost, with
funding fading away just as the GFC is fading in our rear-view mirror.
The benefit of ongoing investment in active transport will improve the
economy through better productivity from reduced road congestion and
will reduce our carbon footprint. Cars contribute more than half of the
greenhouse gas emissions generated by the transport sector. But
increasing participation in active transport which includes incidental
walking to and from public transport helps tackle climate change,
reduces the burden of chronic disease and improves economic
It’s a win-win-win scenario.
We need a national approach and strong leadership to encourage active
transport as a cost-effective strategy to improve health, ease pressure
on hospitals, combat climate change and cut congestion and pollution. We
call on the Federal Government to at least duplicate the commitment to
fund public and active transport as they did in the last election – an
investment that will provide multiple dividends.
The Heart Foundation has just published a comprehensive blueprint for an
active Australia, providing decision makers with evidence-based policies
to promote physical activity, including active transport. These are such
fundamental issues for the future wellbeing of our nation that the Heart
Foundation and Australian Conservation Foundation have joined the Rapid
Active and Affordable Transport Alliance to help people leave their cars
at home and find more sustainable ways of getting around.
We look to our political leaders to use the evidence to develop a
comprehensive approach that ensures we get more people, more active,
Lyn Roberts is Chief Executive of the Heart Foundation; Don Henry is
Chief Executive of the Australian Conservation Foundation