Did you know that the community’s failure to eat enough fish oil tablets is costing Australia $4 billion a year?

We know this because it is enshrined in the latest research from Deloitte Access Economics: “Fish oils for the secondary prevention of Coronary Heart Disease”.

By the way, Deloitte Access had found last year that obesity was costing our fair nation $58.2 billion, so the crisis in not consuming fish oil pales in comparison. Still, $4 billion is a large sum, and one eminently suitable for a headline.

If you are already detecting, dear readers, the faint tang of a distant fish cannery wafting gently before your nostrils then your olfactory nerves serve you well.

The Deloitte study was commissioned by the Complementary Healthcare Council of Australia (CHC), a body which appears to be funded by the likes of Pfizer, Swisse Vitamins and Blackmores.

The press release which accompanied the research, and dutifully reported by the press, quoted CHC executive director, Dr Wendy Morrow, thus: “The report has found that the Australian community could be saving up to $4.19 billion, in terms of costs related to disease burden and premature life loss, through the preventive use of fish oils in Australians with heart disease. This research is of major significance to the industry, government and to the health and wellbeing of the Australian population.”

Deloitte arrives at its $4.19 billion figure by putting a value on a “statistical life”, a life which might have been saved had the victim of heart disease consumed the right dose of fish oil before he or she passed away.

While it is tempting to suggest that Deloitte Access analysts have been forgetting to take their primrose and echinacea supplement for the treatment of chronic assumption-making, they do say that this $4.19 billion of “net benefit” arises only if all people with chronic heart disease were to take their fish oil tablets.

The cost benefit analysis in the report notes that this is unlikely for a range of reasons such as affordability, awareness and individual preferences. In fact, the Deloitte “base case” assumes a 50 per cent take-up rate and a net benefit of $1 billion.

Far be it for the CHC though to focus on such frivolous detail when it is calling for government to subsidise fish oil via the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme, not to mention provide an exemption for the $230 million in GST paid on their members’ fine products.

Gilding of the statistical lily is de rigueur for peak bodies pursuing their assorted policy agendas. But it is worth noting that the huge headline numbers which follow this kind of commissioned research are designed to get governments to fork out public money.

In this, they merit scrutiny; particularly the ”burden of disease” methodology which underpins the Deloitte Access research. The logic of the statistical life was mercilessly harpooned by actuary Geoff Dunsford in these pages last year.

Access Economics had done a report for Diabetes Australia titled, ”The growing cost of obesity in 2008: three years on”, in which it estimated the cost of obesity to Australia at $58.2 billion.

Some $50 billion of that was due to ”burden of disease”, a calculation of ”years of life lost through disability and premature death”. These estimates of “non-financial costs” were meaningless, said Dunsford, citing a slew of analytical flaws in the “burden of disease” model.

Less sophisticated observers such as yours truly prefer the “good old common sense” model (GOCSM), under which it seems patently obvious that if big eaters and smokers bite the dust before the rest of us then taxpayers don’t have to fund their lengthy retirements and free bus tickets.

Moreover, they probably pay a lot more tax while they are up and about anyway, not to mention tell better jokes. In another study impaled by Dunsford’s analytical spear-gun, the statistical life of a smoker is only valued at $2 million, based on a $53,267 for the value of a statistical life year (VSLY). The cost to society, incidentally, was $31.5 billion according to the study by Collins and Lapsley.

Bear in mind, an obese person’s life was priced by Access at $6.35 million, and $266,843 for a VSLY. Whether this discrepancy can be put down to society’s malign view of smokers or whether it reflects more on Access’s propensity to toss around big numbers, we can’t tell.

In its fish oil foray, Deloitte Access put the value of a statistical life year at $151,000, which indicates the life of a non-fish-oil eater is not as valuable as that of an obese person. Though both are worth a good deal more than a poor old smoker.

All of this begs the question of how to value the life of an obese smoker with an aversion to fish oil. Do we simply add the VSLYs together?

Before we finish and head off to take our rosehip and blueberry extract for the prevention of acute and chronic disbelief, it is worth mentioning that elsewhere in the fish oil report the “cost” of acute coronary syndrome is put at $18.3 billion in 2010.

As expected, three-quarters of this is the value of “burden of disease” and just $5 billion is attributable to financial costs which can actually be identified.

Somehow making the jump, as the peak body for the oil derived from cold-blooded aquatic vertebrates does, from a non-financial cost estimate to an actual hit to GDP is … okay, we relent … fishy.