Taxes On Unhealthy Foods Needed To Help Fight Obesity Epidemic
May 19, 2014

Taxes On Unhealthy Foods Needed To Help Fight Obesity Epidemic

Lawrence LeBlond for - Your Universe Online

As the World Health Organization’s (WHO) 67th session of the World Health Assembly gets underway this week in Geneva, a UN investigator is making the case for health experts to push harder to fight the growing obesity epidemic.

Belgian professor Olivier de Schutter said in an opening statement to the annual summit of the WHO that a global pact is needed to tackle obesity, stating that unhealthy eating poses a greater risk to global health than the increasingly regulated sale of tobacco products. He added that governments should move quickly to tax harmful food products.

"Unhealthy diets are now a greater threat to global health than tobacco. Just as the world came together to regulate the risks of tobacco, a bold framework convention on adequate diets must now be agreed," he said.

De Schutter also worked on a 2012 report highlighting the need for a food tax on unhealthy products, which also sought regulation of foods high in saturated fats, salts and sugar. That report also sought a crackdown on junk food advertising, according to a Reuters report.

In his statement on Monday, de Schutter said any attempts to promote better diets and combat obesity “will only work if the food systems underpinning them are put right.”

"Governments have been focusing on increasing calories availability, but they have often been indifferent to what kind of calories are on offer, at what price, to whom they are made available, and how they are marketed," he said, adding that such measures “are essential to ensure that people are protected from aggressive misinformation campaigns."

Coinciding with de Schutter’s statement, two international groups have also made the case for healthier regulations within the food industry.

Consumers International and the World Obesity Federation are calling on governments to adopt more stringent rules, such as adding pictures to food packaging telling the tale of damage caused by obesity, similar to graphic warnings proposed for cigarette packs.

While the two groups said compulsory rules should be imposed on the food and drink industry, the Food and Drink Federation said the industry is already working to make healthier options for consumers.

But the industry may not be moving fast enough on its own as, without rules in place, there is likely no incentive for food makers to push the issue. CI and WOF have said that global deaths due to obesity and being overweight rose from 2.6 million in 2005 to 3.4 million in 2010.

New rules could include reducing levels of sodium, saturated fats and sugars in food, improving food served in hospitals and schools, imposing stricter advertising, and educating the public about healthy eating. Also, all trans-fats should be removed from foods within five years, according to recommendations.

Additionally, advertising to children, especially during peak viewing times, must be restricted. Governments should also be reviewing food prices, introducing taxes, changing licensing controls and starting new research programs to help bring healthy change.

Luke Upchurch, of CI, said the recommendations are looking for the “same level of global treaty” as the tobacco industry faced.

"We want to avoid a situation like the 1960s, where the tobacco industry were saying there is nothing wrong with cigarettes, they are good for our health, and 30 or 40 years later millions have died,” Upchurch told the BBC’s Pippa Stephens. "If we don't take action now, we are going to have the same intransigence and foot-dragging in the food industry."

These new rules, if adopted, would be at the “highest level” of global agreement, meaning governments would be required to implement them, instead of being able to opt out, which Upchurch said governments currently have the option to do.

Some governments, including Brazil and Norway, are already supporting the measures and the UK government has some “really good ideas,” he said to Stephens.

Despite these “sensible and practical” recommendations, we will not see a real change unless governments accept their responsibilities and put consumers before producers, according to Dr Ian Campbell, a clinician and founder of the UK’s National Obesity Forum.

"One significant difference between tobacco regulation and food regulation is that we need food to survive; we don't need tobacco,” he said. "The inescapable fact is obesity is killing on a massive scale and only action from governments to tackle head-on the fundamental causes of obesity will lead to any meaningful decreases."

Perhaps the big problem here is that obesity is not viewed as a disease worthy of most governments’ attention.

"If obesity was an infectious disease, we would have seen billions of dollars being invested in bringing it under control,” Dr Tim Lobstein of the WOF said in a statement to BBC. "But because obesity is largely caused by the overconsumption of fatty and sugary foods, we have seen policy-makers unwilling to take on the corporate interests who promote these foods."

The 67th session of the World Health Assembly takes place in Geneva from May 19 – 24, 2014. As the WHO’s senior decision-making body, its main functions are to determine the policies of the WHO, appoint the Director-General, supervise financial policies, and review and approve proposed program budgets.

More than 3,000 delegates are expected to attend the annual WHA session over the next six days. Representatives from WHO’s 194 Member States will discuss and make decisions on key global health issues, including the growing obesity epidemic.