Thursday, 29 May 2014

Amanda Long: We must act now to stop obesity killing millions

As worldwide support for our call for tougher action on unhealthy diets shows, there is an overwhelming consensus that the obesity crisis is out of control. CI's Director General, Amanda Long, on why we need immediate action.

Last week, we launched a new set of Recommendations that call for a Global Convention to protect and promote healthy diets, drawing worldwide media coverage and support.

Developed in consultation with Members of both Consumers International and the World Obesity Federation, as well as a wider network of public health experts, our Recommendations have already received endorsement from the likes of  the UK's Association of Directors of Public Health, the US Public Health Institute, World Cancer Research Fund, European Public Health Association , and the UN's food chief Olivier De Schutter. Not to mention the support of our 250 membership orgainsations around the world.


Such strong support underlines the fact that the case for a Global Convention on healthy diet is now overwhelming. We face an unprecedented health crisis, that is largely preventable – yet action is falling far short of what is required.

Here are a few shocking statistics:
  • One person every seven seconds dies of diabetes – nearly half of those deaths (44%) are attributable to overweight and obesity
  • 9.4 million people die of hypertension every year – with high salt intake a major risk factor for that disease
  • obesity rates have nearly doubled since 1980
  • 2.3 billion people will be overweight by 2015.

This crisis is truly global – the highest rates of growth for obesity and overweight are now found in low and middle income countries.

As Margaret Chan said in her opening address to this year’s World Health Assembly:

"We see no good evidence that the prevalence of obesity and diet-related non-communicable diseases is receding anywhere. Highly processed foods and beverages loaded with sugar are ubiquitous, convenient, and cheap."

The figures are absolutely compelling. Yet our collective response is lagging far behind what is needed.

Calling for a Global Convention inevitably draws comparisons with the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC). Of course food is not the same as tobacco – but in public health terms we are facing a similar, or even greater, crisis.

The point is about impact.

When it comes to the scale and scope of the impact, tobacco and unhealthy food are directly and very worryingly comparable. 

Smoking still kills six million people a year and rates continue to rise in many countries.  In some countries however, rates are decreasing; in large part because concerted efforts by governments to put public health ahead of the commercial interests.

The FCTC is a major part of this story. It was a ground breaking international agreement that built political will and led to co-ordinated action around the world.

The shocking truth is that, today, poor diet is the number one cause of premature death globally – more than smoking.

As we seek to tackle poor diets we need to learn from the FCTC success, without repeating the thirty years of debate that led to its adoption. We cannot afford to allow the food industry to repeat the foot-dragging strategy taken by the tobacco lobby.

How many times have we said to ourselves – if we knew then the harm caused by tobacco, we’d have done things sooner? Well we do know the damage of unhealthy diets– let’s make amends and prevent a similar catastrophe.

We believe that the global community can, and must, do better than the story of tobacco controls.  The vast majority of deaths from unhealthy eating are preventable. There is widespread agreement about the policies that will have an impact – but we are not doing enough and we are not taking action fast enough.

Of course there are some good examples. Governments that have moved on this such as Finland, or more recently Argentina, with programmes to reduce salt in food. Others such as the UK have pushed for clearer labelling. And of course the recent decision by the Mexican government to tax soda and junk food.

At the city level the excellent lead taken by Michael Bloomberg when he was Mayor of New York, introducing calorie labelling in restaurants, making the food that the city authority provided in schools and hospitals healthier.

Companies are also responding by reducing fat, sugar and salt in food, improving labelling and some efforts to reduce marketing to children.

Many of these developments have been the result of pressure from campaigners all over the globe – including CI Members.

But the response – whether from governments or the food industry - is inadequate.

Ten years ago, the WHO adopted the Global Strategy on Diet Physical Activity and Health. It marked a significant step forward but steadily rising figures for obesity and non communicable diseases show that it is clearly not enough.

Individual related WHO programmes and guidance, and Codex initiatives on labelling are all important steps, but without the political will and comprehensive approach offered by a Framework Convention they are not having the impact that is needed.

The WHO Global Action Plan for the Prevention and Control of Non-Communicable Diseases, that was adopted just last year, calls for a ‘halt’ in the rise of obesity and overweight.

Just a halt. Given the rate of increase, this was thought to be realistic. What a sad indictment. It should not be accepted. It is just not enough.

Back in 1998, then director of the WHO, Dr Gro Harlem Brundtland speaking on the FCTC said:
‘Tobacco control cannot succeed solely through the efforts of individual governments, national nongovernmental organizations and media advocates.  We need an international response to an international problem’.

The direct parallel is here.  This problem is global and systemic and requires a global, systemic response.

We need concerted action on a global scale.  In doing so governments will be truly serving their citizens. Putting them first. Acting for those they represent and sparing them the horror story from poor diet that we all saw happen as a consequence of inaction on tobacco controls.

The world cannot wait another 10 years until we find the will to take the action necessary.   And we cannot contemplate the 30 years it took to get the FCTC agreed.  We cannot let history repeat itself.






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