Raise fuel prices to drive active travel switch and lowered obesity, encourages Deakin Health study

Researchers at Deakin Health Economics in Australia have encouraged a small increase in fuel excise taxes, linking this with gradual behaviour shifts toward active travel and subsequently health benefits.

Published in the BMC Public Health Journal, the study reviews 12 other papers on the relationship linking fuel costs and people’s tendency to think twice about using the car, particularly for commuting. The study has been delivered as part of a wider aim by the Centre for Research Excellence in Obesity Policy, which is assessing a plethora of non-health related sectors, with transport just one under the microscope.

Lead author Vicki Brown leads the paper’s publication with the claim that $30 million could be removed from Australia’s obesity-specific health bill with an increase of just 10 cents per litre.

“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.

“We know that there are many positive health benefits of improving physical activity, including reducing the risk of heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes.”

Anecdotally, Brown adds that there is a correlation between many countries with high active transport rates and higher fuel prices.

“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.

The study focuses solely on fuel costs and doesn’t take into account wider costs, including parking costs and tolls, for example.

“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,” added Brown.

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

Concluding, the study suggests that wider intervention could prompt Australians to carefully consider which journeys are non-essential by car, further encouraging the Government to think carefully about making it easier for people to cycle and walk.

“Increasing the cost of private motor vehicle travel will only be effective as an obesity prevention measure if there are efficient, affordable, convenient and pleasant alternative modes for getting around,” she said.

“That means we also need to ensure governments are looking at greater investment in public transport, cycling and walking infrastructure, access, safety and promotion.

“This could be achieved through the approximately $1.7 billion in revenue the government would stand to collect annually through this proposed increase to fuel excise, ensuring that other factors necessary to support a switch to active and public transport are available to all.”

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