May 29th, 2004

Top Health Officials Adopt Global Plan to Cut Obesity

By Fiona Fleck
British Medical Journal

After months of tough negotiations with sugar producers, the 192 nation World Health Organization adopted a global plan last weekend to help millions of people avoid obesity and other chronic diseases by adopting a healthy diet.

The plan was requested by governments as guidelines for setting health policy to combat the rise in obesity, heart disease, stroke, cancer, and diabetes—non-infectious, often preventable diseases that WHO says account for 60% of deaths globally. Most of those deaths are now in developing countries, it says.

WHO’s Global Strategy on Diet, Physical Activity and Health, a 22 page text containing guidelines and recommendations, was adopted by top government health officials from WHO member states gathered in Geneva for their annual meeting.

The plan recommends limits on levels of saturated fats, trans fatty acids, sugar, and salt in processed food and that companies adhere to “clear and consistent food labelling practices” to help consumers make informed and more healthy choices.

It cites taxation and subsidy as means of promoting healthier manufactured food and drinks, and it calls on industry to use responsible marketing practices.

The global strategy on diet is not legally binding—unlike WHO’s convention on tobacco control adopted at the World Health Assembly last year.

Despite the lack of legal clout, the plan’s powerful message has unsettled the international sugar industry, which lobbied hard behind the scenes to derail it.

The draft plan was first published in December 2003. Under pressure from the sugar industry, the United States opposed it, rejecting the link between junk food and obesity and suggestions that heavy marketing and aggressive advertising of fast food increased the risk of obesity.

But after criticism by health advocacy groups that the US government was failing to tackle an obesity epidemic—130 million Americans (64%) of the population, are overweight or obese—the administration later dropped those objections.

Other aspects of WHO’s global plan were revised slightly after member governments were consulted in February and March. The final text, which was published last month, is fairly close to the original document.

The food and drinks industry welcomed the plan and pledged to join the fight against obesity.

“Our member companies are moving full steam ahead to develop a greater variety of healthy and nutritious foods and provide additional information to help consumers manage their diets,” said the Grocery Manufacturers of America and the Confederation of the Food and Drink Industries of the European Union in a statement.

Health advocacy groups said the text contained positive aspects, but some criticised WHO for diluting part of it under industry pressure.

“The WHO global strategy is far weaker than it should be,” said Gary Ruskin, executive director of Washington based Commercial Alert, said. “WHO caved into the US and the junk food industry by deleting support for policies that promote the production and marketing of fruit, vegetables, and legumes,” Mr Ruskin added.

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