WHO official urges immediate action on obesity before battle lost

by Malcolm Burgess , 8 Sep 2006

SYDNEY (AFP) - Governments must wake up to the scourge of obesity or it will soon be too late to win the battle against the global epidemic, a senior World Health Organization official warned.

Professor Robert Beaglehole's warning concluded a week-long summit at which 2,000 delegates exchanged research on a health problem the WHO says now affects more than one billion people globally --- nearly one in six people.

Beaglehole, the WHO's director of chronic disease, said public health bodies must learn from the fight against tobacco to "harangue" and educate health ministers who doubted the urgency of acting on obesity.

"The critical lesson from tobacco is waiting too long -- 50 years -- from the first evidence," he said.

"There would not be one minister of health who doesn't now appreciate the importance of tobacco control."

Obesity is out of control and there is sufficient evidence to convince governments to take urgent action, he said.

Unless individual nations move now to rein in expanding waistlines "we will have missed the boat," he added.

"The evidence is secure enough for the appropriate public health action," he said, dismissing those who doubt data on the extent of the problem.

At the 10th International Congress on Obesity in Sydney, a gloomy snapshot emerged of a global menace that disproportionately affects women and the poor, threatens a generation of children, and risks bankrupting nations that fail to act early enough.

While drug companies touted pharmaceutical solutions and lobby groups their branded diets, most scientists and academics agreed that further-reaching action was needed quickly.

Options included eliminating government agricultural subsidies that kept sugary, fatty foods cheaper than fruit and vegetables, educating the public and politicians about the causes of obesity and a total ban on advertising of junk food to children.

Beaglehole also stressed engaging with the food and sugary drinks industries, which many saw as the main culprits behind the epidemic.

"They're part of problem so they have to be part of solution," he said.

Beaglehole also took aim at opponents of industry regulation targeted at protecting children from obesity, who accused experts of promoting a "nanny state."

"We need to promote the idea that a government which is interested in the health and well-being of its children is doing what a government should do -- an enlightened government."