March 13th, 2004

Developing Countries Could Derail Global Anti-Obesity Plan

By Fiona Fleck
British Medical Journal

In a last minute submission to the World Health Organization 135 developing nations, including major sugar producers, expressed “concerns” about WHO’s global plan to tackle obesity. Some countries threatened to vote against the final text, which WHO members are set to adopt at their annual meeting in May.

Earlier this year the United States, under pressure from its powerful food and drinks industry, opposed WHO’s proposed global strategy on diet, physical activity, and health and rejected a link made in the draft text between junk food and obesity (31 January, p 245).

But as feedback poured in from governments to WHO to meet the deadline at the end of February, the plan looked more likely to be derailed by the “G77,” a group of 135 middle to low income countries which lobby collectively on economic issues. A Washington based pressure group saw the hand of the United States behind the group’s objections.

In a letter dated 27 February that was published on WHO’s website, Carlos Antonio da Rocha Paranhos, Brazil’s ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva, said the G77 countries and China “wished to examine thoroughly all the implications of the proposed draft strategy.”

“Due to concerns relating to substantive aspects of the draft strategy, it considers it necessary that further and in-depth consultations be held with relevant stakeholders and other sectors involved in our countries and with WHO,” wrote the Brazilian ambassador on behalf of the G77 countries, without specifying what their concerns were.

Sugar producing countries such as Swaziland have also made their own submissions. “We would find it difficult to support a WHO Strategy which has the potential of harming our economy,” John Kunene, principal secretary at Swaziland’s Ministry of Health, wrote to WHO.

Gary Ruskin from the Washington based lobby group Commercial Alert said the Bush administration had persuaded other governments “that were dependent on the United States” to oppose the plan after its own stance proved “politically embarrassing” in a country where one third of the population is considered overweight.

“They’ve got other countries to do their dirty work for them,” said Mr Ruskin, who is also campaigning for a worldwide ban on marketing of junk food to children aged 12 years or less.

In January William Steiger, special assistant at the US Department of Health and Human Services, complained to WHO that there was “almost no” scientific evidence showing that fruit and vegetable consumption decreased the risk of obesity and diabetes or that heavy marketing of fast food increased the risk of obesity.

But in an about turn last week Mr Steiger praised the WHO plan in a letter published on the WHO website saying that the industry had to “provide healthier choices for customers and include better information about their products.”

Most European countries praised WHO for its efforts to combat a global epidemic of cardiovascular diseases that are seen as largely caused by unhealthy diet and obesity and welcomed the proposals, which they said were in line with government health recommendations over the last few decades.

Unlike WHO’s anti-tobacco convention adopted at last year’s World Health Assembly in May, the plan on diet and obesity would not be legally binding but would aim to set global standards.

Countries’ comments are accessible at http://www.who.int/hpr/gs.strategy.country.shtml

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