WHO Anti-Obesity Drive May Curtail Food Ads to Kids

22 January 2004

The World Health Organization, meeting in Geneva Tuesday, agreed to mount an aggressive campaign to counter the accelerating global problem of obesity.

The decision was taken by the WHO's thirty-two nation executive board despite resistance from some US delegates and intense lobbying by food and drink manufacturers.

One plank of the agreed strategy calls for food and beverage companies to cut back on amounts of salt, fat and sugar in manufactured products, also to curtail food advertising aimed at children

But following pressure from US interests, the executive board agreed to delay the strategy's implementation -- at latest until early March -- to allow time for proposing and debating changes to the final document.

Among the report's recommendations is that one hour of moderate exercise a day would prevent obesity; but the US government says research supporting that amount of exercise is limited. And although the US supports the need for a counter-obesity drive, it is less than convinced by some of the science underlying the proposed solutions.

Among the scientific assumptions thrown back at the WHO by the Bush administration is that fruit and vegetable consumption is related to decreased risk of diabetes and obesity. Another US argument is that "no data have yet clearly demonstrated that the advertising on children's television causes obesity."

But opponents of such advertising say that virtually all child-oriented food and beverage products promoted on TV are high in salt, fat or sugar content. There is, they maintain, an Everest of data to support that fact -- as there is that undue consumption of these ingredients can lead to obesity and ill health.

The US Department of Health and Human Services said it is trying to strengthen, not dilute, the WHO strategy. "Our objective is to present to the World Health Assembly the strongest possible resolution and strategy so it will be adopted by the most number of countries," said spokesman, Bill Pierce.

However, delegate Bruce Silverglade, legal director of the US Center for Science in the Public Interest, a nonprofit consumer-advocacy group in Washington, is skeptical that the administration's motives are altruistic: "If the US wanted to completely halt the effort, they failed. But it remains to be seen how strong the final document will be," he worries.

According to WHO data, over one billion adults worldwide are overweight, at least 300 million of whom are clinically obese. A grim irony is that obesity is on the increase among the populations of the developing world where malnutrition is also a major public health problem.

Data sourced from: The Wall Street Journal Online; additional content by WARC staff