Governments must regulate unhealthy foods in the same way as alcohol and tobacco to tackle rising levels of obesity, urges a report from the International Association for the Study of Obesity (IASO).
The association prepared its set of policy proposals ahead of a United Nations meeting later this year, at which governments will outline their progress on reducing obesity and non-communicable diseases (NCDs) – many of which may have links with diet – including heart disease, some cancers and diabetes.
IASO director of policy Dr Tim Lobstein said: “In isolation governments are reluctant to undertake market interventions as they don’t want to be seen to restrict people’s freedoms. However there is a good case for clear traffic light labelling on products, for banning junk food marketing to children, and for adjusting the existing subsidies and taxes to increase the consumption of healthier foods.”
The organisation cited WHO director general, Dr Margaret Chan, who likened the food industry to the tobacco industry in July and said: “Let me remind you. Not one single country has managed to turn around its obesity epidemic in all age groups. This is not a failure of individual will-power. This is a failure of political will to take on big business.”
What about voluntary initiatives?
Governments and the food industry alike have been under increasing pressure to take action to tackle obesity and diet-related illness, especially as obesity has overtaken smoking as the number one cause of poor health in many countries. Industry has responded with a number of voluntary initiatives, including marketing restrictions, and voluntary pledges to reduce calories, portion sizes, and sugar, fat and salt.
The IASO document acknowledged that voluntary agreements could be effective, but added: “We know of no evidence to show they are cheaper and more effective than compulsory approaches. In the case of marketing of foods and beverages to children there is increasing evidence that the voluntary initiatives are failing to protect children and that stronger measures are needed.”
Aimed at governments
Lobstein told FoodNavigator that the IASO’s call was aimed at government health departments.
“[It] provides guidance on how they can strengthen their position: social marketing to raise awareness and change the narrative, cost-benefit analyses to show that intervention is economically beneficial, stronger Public Health Acts which permit interventions in markets and which put greater onus on ministers to take action, and monitoring bodies to hold the stakeholders to account,” he said.
He added that governments could also ensure company costs incurred through lobbying were not tax deductible.
“Why should the public purse help subsidise actions which promote private interests and especially, in this case, undermine public interests?
“…Of course there will be push-back from commercial operators, that is their job. But it has to be countered, not only by changing the narrative through social marketing but also by reducing industry pressure on governments, especially their lobbying and party-funding where they buy influence.”