A lack of political will is stalling action on obesity: McKinsey report author

By David Burrows

- Last updated on GMT

© World Obesity Federation
© World Obesity Federation

Related tags: Level playing field, Obesity

Europe is struggling to get to grips with rising obesity levels because politicians are distracted by single policies and industry lacks the level playing field that regulation can create, says Richard Dobbs, author of the McKinsey report.

“There’s a real gap in political leadership … and I don’t think [politicians and policymakers] are as worried about [obesity] as they should be,”​ said Richard Dobbs, a senior partner at McKinsey and the man behind the firm’s seminal report on obesity in 2014.

Dobbs and his team calculated the global economic impact of obesity to be €1.78 trillion ($2 trillion), the same as armed violence, war and terrorism, and slightly less than smoking.

But Dobbs suggested that the EU and its member states are spending far too little time, money and effort on tackling an issue that is such a “massive economic burden”. ​Part of the problem is that governments have been distracted by single policies, like sugar taxes​, he said.

“You can’t just pull one or two policy levers, you need to pull 50, but that’s much harder than saying ‘I’m going to introduce a sugar tax’,” ​he said in an interview with EU Observer to mark European Obesity Day on May 20.

Close but no cigar…

Indeed, in their report, entitled Overcoming obesity: an initial economic analysis​, Dobbs and his team assessed 44 interventions as part of a comprehensive obesity abatement programme. Implement them all and in the UK, for example, one in five overweight or obese people would return to ‘normal weight’.

Dobbs said some countries had “come close”​ to introducing robust obesity plans only to back away. Politicians need to be “comfortable with intervention”,​ he said.

At a European level this hasn’t happened. A report last week highlighted how countries have been quick to regulate the tobacco and alcohol industries in the interests of public health, but there has been far less state interference when it comes to diets​.

Moves to tighten up the rules on marketing junk food to children have also fallen disappointingly short so far, according to health campaigners who argue that far too much regulation is left in the hands of industry.

Speaking to FoodNavigator, Dobbs said many businesses see tackling obesity as a responsibility. “Ten years ago there was a group of people in industry that didn’t see [obesity] as their problem; it was [all about] exercise. That [thinking] has changed from the private conversations I had [when researching the report],”​ he explained.

“I met everyone from retailers and manufacturers to the drug companies that make money from obesity, and they were all united in wanting to fix the problem,”​ he added.

As such, there’s an element of politicians “pushing at an open door”,​ he continued, but there’s a catch. “You need a level playing field and that’s where regulation can help.”

Earlier this month, Coca-Cola, Danone, PepsiCo, Unilever and Nestlé joined forces with health groups to demand EU-wide nutrient profiles for nutrition and health claims.​They said the absence of the profiles “undermines the level playing field that industry needs to compete fairly and to innovate for health”.

 

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