SYDNEY (Reuters Life!) - Santa Claus needs to lose weight, cut down on the mince pies and brandy and swap his reindeer and sleigh for a bicycle to become a healthier role model for children, an Australian public health doctor said.
Dr. Nathan Grills, of Australia's leading Monash University, believes the current image of Santa promotes obesity, drink-driving, speeding and a generally unhealthy lifestyle, and it would be better if he was depicted without his signature rotund belly.
Grills' research on Santa, which he said was largely tongue-in-cheek but intended to raise awareness about public health, was published in the Christmas edition of the British Medical Journal entitled "Santa Claus: A public health pariah?"
"There is a potential for someone who is as widely recognized around the world as Santa to influence people, especially children, and to show that it's okay to drink, okay to be obese," Grills told Reuters.
"It's a very small risk, but one that is spread very widely."
He argues that Santa only needs to affect health by 0.1 percent to damage millions of lives since the imaginary, fatherly figure was the only fictional character more highly recognized by American children than Ronald McDonald.
Grills also found that Santa sells, and sometimes he sells harmful products.
"The advertising aspect of Santa is very big but the original St. Nicholas idea is all about giving and generosity, it's not around Santa being the chief marketing executive of Coca-Cola," Grills explained.
Santa also potentially promotes drink-driving, Grills said in his research, referring to the tradition of leaving a glass of brandy to wish him well on his travel. "With a few billion houses to visit, Santa would soon be over the limit," he said.
The study also said Santa has real potential to spread infectious diseases, because if he were to sneeze or cough, all the children who sit on his lap may end up with flu as well as their Christmas present.
Grills said more research is needed before Santa is pronounced a true public menace, but in the meantime, it would help if he were to munch on reindeer food and walk instead.
Writing by Miral Fahmy; Editing by David Fox