SHARE
COPY LINK

OBESITY

WHO calls for junk food taxes to beat obesity

Alarmed at expanding waistlines around the world, the UN's Geneva-based health agency has urged countries to get serious about reining in a ballooning obesity crisis, proposing an action plan that includes taxing unhealthy snacks and rules against marketing junk food to children.

WHO calls for junk food taxes to beat obesity
Photo: AFP/Getty Images

Once considered only a problem in high-income countries like the United States, where nearly 70 percent of the adult population is overweight, obesity is now growing fastest in developing nations in Africa and Latin America, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
 
As the urgency to tackle the crisis grows, member countries of the UN body late on Monday adopted a 2013-2020 action plan to fight against diseases like cardiovascular illness, cancer, and chronic diabetes.

"The cost of inaction far outweighs the cost of taking action," the body said.

The plan, which targets risky lifestyle choices such as smoking, alcohol consumption and an unhealthy diet, includes a goal to halt the rise in global obesity levels by 2020.

"The fight against obesity is . . . one of the most important factors in fighting noncommunicable diseases," Francesco Branca, WHO's head of nutrition for health and development, told reporters in Geneva.

Obesity levels nearly doubled between 1980 and 2008, when at least one in three adults worldwide was overweight and around one in 10 was considered obese, according to the WHO.

At least 2.8 million adults die each year as a result of being overweight or obese, not counting the large percentages of diabetes, heart disease and cancer cases attributable to overweight, according to the UN agency's numbers.

The world's fattest country is the tiny South Pacific island nation of Nauru, where 71 percent of the population is considered obese, WHO figures show.

The newly adopted plan "is extremely important in addressing one of the most devastating health crises of our time," said John Stewart of the watchdog Corporate Accountability International, describing obesity as "an epidemic".

Since foods high in fat, sugar and salt are often cheaper than healthier alternatives, the battle against the bulge is increasingly spreading to poorer nations, observers say.

"In many high-income countries the problem is levelling off, but the worst problems we see are in low- and middle-income countries where the rate of obesity . . . is increasing at a very fast pace," Godfrey Xuereb, a WHO expert on the issue, told AFP.

The new WHO plan calls for a range of measures to stymy obesity's upward trend, including urging food and beverage companies to cut levels of salt and sugar in their products, replace saturated and trans-fats with unsaturated fats, and reduce portion sizes.

And in a world where more than 40 million children under the age of five are overweight, it also calls on countries to strictly control the marketing of unhealthy foods and drinks to children.

Taking on marketing aimed at youngsters was "incredibly important," Stewart told AFP.

Food and beverage corporations for too long have been "taking advantage of children's inherent vulnerabilities by marketing them unhealthy food that makes them sick", he said.

The industry itself has welcomed most of the WHO proposals, claiming it had already made strides both in "reformulating" existing products to make them healthier and in voluntarily reining in the advertising of unhealthy foods and drinks to youngsters.

The recommended actions "are ones we support and have been implementing on a voluntary basis since 2004," said Jane Reid of the International Food an Beverage Alliance, which represents the world's largest food and drink corporations, including Coca-Cola, McDonald's and Nestlé.

The organization, which maintains that voluntary action and self-regulation by companies is the answer to the obesity problem, was less supportive of the WHO plan's call for countries to consider taxing unhealthy foods and subsidizing healthier choices in a bid to impact eating habits.

"Fiscal measures aimed specifically to change behaviour are complex to design and enforce," Reid wrote in an email to AFP, adding there was little proof such taxes would help improve eating habits.

And, she maintained, a food tax "would be felt hardest by low-income families," who might "compensate for unanticipated budget shortfalls by buying more energy-dense, lower-nutrient foods."

Stewart meanwhile cautioned against giving the industry players widely blamed for the obesity epidemic too much say in how to solve the problem.

"What we really need are statutory regulations that are binding and make a real impact on kids' health," he said.

Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.

RESEARCH

Urban living ‘affects obesity’: Lausanne study

Swiss researchers have concluded that the urban environment likely plays a key role in obesity levels of individuals based on a study of residents in the city of Lausanne.

Urban living 'affects obesity': Lausanne study
Obesity map of Lausanne shows east-west divide. Image: EPFL

The study, involving academics from Lausanne’s federal institute of technology (EPFL), found that people living in the western, working-class areas of the city are more obese than their counterparts living in the more affluent neighbourhoods to the south and east.

Doctors and geographers pooled their expertise to develop a body-mass index (BMI) map of Lausanne after more than 6,000 city residents volunteered to hit the scales.

The results showed that the usual factors — education, income, age, health, ethnicity, gender and alcohol consumption — could not account for why residents in some parts of the city were heavier than those in others.

The research, published in the British Medical Journal Open, concluded that “urban living itself could play a role”, EPFL said on its website on Tuesday.

The data was analyzed by geographers from EPFL and epidemiologists from the university hospitals of Lausanne (CHUV) and Geneva (HUG).


A map uses red dots to identify high rates of obesity and blue dots for low BMI levels, clearly showing the east-west divide.

This remained even after obesity levels were weighted to account for factors that affect weight such as income, education level, age and other factors.

“It appears that the urban environment has a major impact, independent of income and other common factors,” Idris Guessous, a medical doctor from CHUV and HUG and co-author of the study is quoted as saying in a news release from EPFL.

Such factors as distance from green spaces, access to stores, fast-food restaurants and “geographical compartmentalization” could be responsible for the differences, although more research is needed, she indicated.

Contagious behaviour of residents in a neighbourhood could have an impact on human health, researchers believe.

If urban living does play an important role in obesity there may be ways to address the problem, Guessous said.

“You cannot change your age, it’s not easy to act on your educational level, and equal income for all is the stuff of utopia,” she said. 

“But we can do something about city living,” she said.

“Once we’ve gained a better understanding of the role of urbanism, we’ll be able to look at the more affluent suburbs and get ideas on how to improve disadvantaged neighbourhoods.”

SHOW COMMENTS