South Australian eye surgeon Dr James Muecke has vowed to use his platform as Australian of the Year to advocate for measures to tackle preventable blindness caused by diabetes – including a tax on sugary drinks.
“Diabetes is now the leading cause of blindness among working-age adults in Australia,” Dr Muecke told The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.
“The concerning thing is that blindness due to diabetes is virtually all preventable or treatable.”
Dr Muecke said a tax on sugary drinks must be on the table as part of efforts to prevent and manage type 2 diabetes – which afflicts at least 1.2 million Australians and costs the economy an estimated $15 billion a year, including lost productivity.
“Sugar is cheap and ubiquitous, so it’s readily accessible to everyone. You walk into a service station and there’s a counter of lollies as you walk in,” he said.
Dr Muecke, 56, was named Australian of the Year 2020 at a glittering awards ceremony in Canberra on Saturday night, in recognition of his work preventing blindness in Australia and the developing world.
The Sight For All co-founder had been nominated for the honour alongside orthopaedic surgeon Munjed Al Muderis, the NSW Australian of the year who is lobbying for action on climate change, singer-songwriter Archie Roach (Victoria), Jess Melbourne-Thomas (Tasmania), Rachel Downie (Queensland), Annie Fogarty (WA), Katrina Fanning (ACT) and Geoffrey Thompson (NT).
“Blindness is just one of many complications of diabetes and, as an eye surgeon, I see the end stages of the disease,” Dr Muecke said.
“What we should be doing is going right back to the start and saying what’s causing type 2 diabetes – and that’s a dietary disease due to consumption of too much sugar and refined carbohydrates in processed food.”
Tackling diet-related chronic illness has proved a political minefield for both major parties, with calls by public health advocates to crack down on junk food advertising, overhaul food labelling and use price mechanisms to reduce sugar consumption met by resistance from powerful lobby groups.
Neither the Morrison government nor the Labor opposition support a sugar tax, but labelling, advertising, promotions and junk food discounting are being considered as part of consultations on a national obesity strategy to be rolled out in conjunction with the states and territories.
Dr Muecke said sugar was “as addictive as nicotine” and that consumers were “constantly bombarded by advertising” that, along with the high level of added sugar in processed foods, made it “very difficult” to maintain a healthy diet.
“I think we need to take sweet products away from checkout counters, particularly when they’re discounted,” he said.
“We’ve got to make them less accessible to the public.”
National Australia Day Council chair Danielle Roche said Dr Muecke’s “passionate and selfless commitment to preventing blindness” was “changing lives”.
Dr Muecke said he also wanted to encourage people with diabetes to get their eyes checked.
“The problem is, more than half the people with this disease are not having their regular sight-saving eye checks,” he said.
“They’re coming in too late, sometimes too late for treatment, too late to reverse the vision loss.”
Prime Minister Scott Morrison paid tribute to the volunteer firefighters battling bushfires in his opening remarks at the Australian of the Year awards, saying the thousands of men and women were “reminding us about what it means to be a citizen of this great nation”.
“They – like the nominees here tonight – are demonstrating to us that our national story is one of great achievement – but also of pain, of effort, sweat,” Mr Morrison said.
“Through this long summer, we have seen the unquenchable spirit of Australians. Australians rallying to each other, be they family, friends, or indeed strangers.”
Story Credit: theage.com.au