We need to talk about sugar
The public health risks associated with sugar are just as serious as smoking and should be treated as a priority by
governments, doctors and medical specialists, a key meeting of anaesthetists has been told.
According to Dr Judith Killen, a Fellow of the Australian and New Zealand College of Anaesthetists, the explosion in
public health spending on sugar related diseases and conditions such as type 2 diabetes and obesity was a “wake-up
call’’ for politicians and medical experts.
“It’s really quite simple. We have to start talking about sugar as a serious public health issue,’’ Dr Killen, a senior
anaesthetist at Wagga Wagga Base Hospital in NSW, said.
Dr Killen spoke on the topic for a presentation Diseases of Pregnancy: Diabetes at a recent meeting of rural
anaesthetists in Broome.
“Just think about it. All you need to do is substitute ‘smoking’ with ‘sugar.’ Too much sugar which can lead to Type 2
diabetes can cause vascular disease, amputation and renal failure. Sugar is as dangerous as smoking and like smoking it
Dr Killen, who has more than 30 years’ experience as an anaesthetist in intensive care and general hospital settings, is
working with ANZCA and the Australian Diabetes Society to develop new national before, during and after surgery diabetes
patient guidelines for doctors and medical specialists.
Dr Killen told the meeting how the “extraordinary increases’’ in recent years of pregnant women with type 2 or
gestational diabetes is a “direct effect of the diets increasingly considered normal to consume in pregnancy - foods
with high simple carbohydrate content including soft drinks.’’
“We currently have foods such as sweetened yoghurts being given healthy eating stars for their calcium content and low
fat despite sugar content sometimes exceeding that of desserts such as ice cream,” she said.
“Diabetes is one of the commonest causes of miscarriage and congenital anomalies and women with diabetes are more
susceptible to other complications of pregnancy such as hypertension and pre-eclampsia.”
Dr Killen believes there needs to be greater awareness among politicians, including those representing rural, remote and
regional electorates in Australia and New Zealand, of the public health risks associated with excessive sugar intake and
the link to the development of type 2 diabetes.
“Patients with diabetes have an increased risk of still birth, preterm labour, obstructed labour and a need for
caesarean delivery,” she explained.
“The babies are at increased risk of respiratory distress syndromes and hypoglycaemia.”
With studies and research now highlighting the links between in-utero sugar exposure and childhood and adult obesity Dr
Killen believes stronger measures are needed.
Dr Killen told the meeting that a raft of measures should be considered including higher taxes on sugar products and
soft drink or sugar taxes.
“We need to consider a whole battery of things because more and more of our health dollar is being spent on the
treatment of type 2 diabetes which is a preventable disease.”
Dr Killen said doctors and medical specialists such as anaesthetists also had a role to play in discussing the issue
with their patients, particularly before surgery.
“It is essential that we develop an approach to understanding the importance of a good diet and feeling comfortable
about discussing this with our patients. Our role is to ensure our patients are fit and healthy before surgery and
diabetes can increase the rate of complications quite dramatically.”
Dr Killen said type 2 diabetes was now a bigger scourge than smoking in many countries, including Australia.
“As doctors we have to start talking about sugar in the same way as we have talked about smoking over the years and as a
society we have to approach it in the same way as we have approached smoking.”
Dr Killen believes Australia’s ground-breaking cigarette packet labelling policies with their graphic images could be
used as a model for a similar approach to food labelling with high sugar content.