September 30, 2005

Health Services Not Meeting Obesity Challenge

LONDON -- Healthcare systems have failed to come to grips with the global obesity epidemic and its serious health consequences, leading experts said on Friday.

More than a billion people, 10 percent of whom are children, worldwide are obese or overweight. It is the sixth most important risk factor in the overall burden of disease.

But there are no coordinated efforts among doctors, nurses, and nutritionists to prevent people from piling on the pounds or to help those who already have, the experts said.

"No health-service system has yet developed a useful strategy for managing the huge numbers of overweight and obese people in the community," said David Halsam, of the National Obesity Forum, UK, and Philip James, of the International Obesity Task Force.

In a report in the Lancet medical journal they detailed the dire consequences of neglecting one of the world's most neglected public health problems.

Obesity decreases life expectancy by seven years by the time a person reaches 40 years old. About 30,000 deaths a year in Britain and 10 times that amount in the United States are attributable to being obese, according the duo.

In the United States, which has the highest rate of overweight and obese people, the problem is set to overtake smoking as the main preventable cause of illness and early death.

In addition to shortening life, carrying too much weight also increases the risk of developing heart disease and stroke, diabetes, arthritis and certain types of cancer.

"About 10 percent of all cancer deaths among non-smokers are related to obesity," Halsam and James said.

Obese people are also more likely to suffer psychological problems, be considered less acceptable partners and are handicapped in job promotions and may earn less.

"The medical profession is only now waking up to the political and industrial challenges as well as the medical challenge," they said.

Halsam and James warned that food industry interests, with powers greater than those of the tobacco giants, are lobbying and using tactics to slow the drive for change.

"Our new scientific understanding of obesity is helping to validate a new approach to tackling the problem but the response of the medical profession to both its management and prevention is still at an early stage," they added.