With the number of overweight 13-15 year olds reaching 1 in 2 in parts of the region, CI's Middle East coordinator Ahmed Al Harthy reports back on a recent WHO consultation to tackle the issue.
Childhood obesity may not be the most obvious challenge facing the region, but the figures that we have are worrying.
Kuwait tops the tables, with 51% of children aged 13-15 overweight, followed by the United Arab Emirates (UAE) with 38.4% and Egypt with 32.5%.
The prevalence of obesity among children aged 13-15 years is highest in Kuwait with 22.7%, followed by the UAE (14.4%), Libya (8.2%) and Iraq (7.9%).
We also know that changing diets in the region are contributing to this. On average 50% of adolescents drink one or more soft drinks daily.
The highest prevalence is found in Kuwait (74.3%), followed by Qatar (62.5%), Lebanon (60.2%) and Palestine (58.2%).
For a number of years, CI has campaigned for restrictions on the marketing to children of foods high in sugar, fat and / or salt.
Last month CI was pleased to attend a World Health Organization (WHO) regional consultation in Amman, Jordan.
The aim of the meeting was to bring some urgency to the challenge of protecting children in the Eastern Mediterranean Region from harmful food marketing - so that we can start addressing these shocking figures.
Despite this growing public health challenge, little has been done by governments in the region to tackle the marketing of high fat, salt and sugar (HFSS) foods- a known contributor to poor diets and to childhood obesity.
In May 2010, the WHO agreed a Set of recommendations on the marketing of foods and non alcoholic beverages to children. The recommendations give guidance to governments on how to limit the power of advertising over children.
Of the countries that responded to a WHO survey ahead of the Amman meeting, only 2 had any kind of measures in place to restrict HFSS food marketing.
Meanwhile, the amount spent on advertising by the food and beverage industry in the region continues to grow steadily.
Taking part in the consultation were experts from a mixture of backgrounds including from ministries of health, media networks, lawyers, the Arab League and UNICEF. Consumer groups were very well represented.
As well as CI, two CI Members from the region participated: the Network for Consumer Protection in Pakistan; and Consumers Lebanon.
This strong consumer presence was no accident. The consumer movement has a vital role to play in helping develop controls on food marketing: monitoring media channels to produce evidence of the levels of marketing, raising public awareness of the problem; pressing policy makers to act; and monitoring the effectiveness of policies once introduced.
Indeed, CI Members in other parts of the world have successfully taken on this role.
Since opening the CI office in Oman a year ago, we have been working to strengthen our Members in this region to articulate, serve and defend consumer rights.
Sharing the tools we have developed, and our experience of campaigning to protect children’s health from the harmful effects of HFSS marketing, will be an important continuation of this work.
Food marketing to children is a priority area for CI.