Economic inequality fuels obesity crisis

By Laura Crowley

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Food industry, European union, Health care, Nutrition, Eu

The food industry must increase healthy choice through innovation
to combat the uneven distribution of health resulting from economic
inequality, according to participants at a European parliamentary
symposium on obesity.

The first European Parliamentary symposium on the fight against obesity took place last week in Brussels. Part of the debate hinged on ways to cure obesity as well as the food industry's commitments to producing new healthier and cheaper products thereby increasing choice and accessibility. Of particular concern was the negative cost of healthy food. Low income groups are opting for cheap yet calorific foods, said stakeholders, whilst their access to facilities for physical activity is limited by affordability. A spokeswoman for the Confederation of the Food and Drink Industries of the EU (CIAA) said that "innovation is indeed a very important aspect". ​She continued: "Our key conclusions from the day was that we see the EU Platform as an opportunity to forge partnerships thereby building trust, sharing experiences and developing solutions. The food and drink industrytherefore remains a committed partner to the EU Platform and will continue to implement the commitments it made in November 2005 and will put much emphasis on effectively monitoring the implementation of these commitments."​A survey of members of the UK's Food and Drink Federation carried out this summer showed the that food industries have been honouring their commitment to the fight against obesity. The results showed that the recipes used for at least £15bn (€21.5bn) worth of foods have less fat, sugar and salt, compared with 2004. In addition, a further £11.5bn (€16.5bn) worth of products that are lower in these ingredients have been launched. The importance of raising awareness in promoting balanced diets and encouraging physical activity were also discussed at the symposium. "If we are urging people to lead healthy lifestyles, our message has to be supported by structural measures that are in line with it,"​ Maria Iglesia-Gomez from the Commission directorate-general for health and consumer protection was quoted by EurActiv to have said. "People need to be given the possibility of choosing and buying healthy foods and accessing physical activity infrastructure." ​The symposium was a follow-up to a White Paper on a European strategy for curbing obesity, proposed by the Commission in May 2007. This highlighted the need for better information for consumers, enabling a healthy choice and encouraging physical activity as the main tools to counter the challenge. It gave the food industry and advertising sector until 2010 to develop, implement, monitor and demonstrate self-regulation. The symposium came at the same time a report on the economic implications of socio-economic inequalities in health in the EU was produced by the Commission. This showed that in all countries with available data, people with lower levels of education, occupation and/or income tend to have systematically higher morbidity and mortality rates. The number of deaths that can be attributed to health inequalities in the EU as a whole is estimated to be 707,000 per year. The number of lives lost due to these deaths is considered to be about 11.4m. The report concludes that investing in programs to reduce health inequalities can have important economic benefits. Actions aimed at reducing inequalities will help increase productivity and reduce social security and healthcare costs. According to the report, inequalities-related losses to health account for 15 per cent of the costs of social security systems, and for 20 per cent of the costs of healthcare systems in the EU as a whole. EU Members States agreed to demonstrate "visible progress"​ in reducing obesity rates, especially relating to children and adolescents, and that improvements should be apparent by 2015 at the latest. In 2006, 30 per cent of European children were estimated to be overweight. The prevalence of obesity in the UK has more than doubled in the last 25 years. The Foresight study, released earlier this month, showed that, at the current trend, nearly 60 per cent of the UK population could be obese by 2050. It concluded that this would result in a seven-fold increase in the direct healthcare costs, with the wider costs to society and businesses reaching £45.5bn (€65.3bn). In response to the study, Dawn Primarolo, public health minister for the UK, said: "We have made progress with improved physical activity levels at school, healthier school food for children, clearer labelling and tougher restrictions on advertising foods high in fat and sugar to children - but we know that we need to go further and faster."

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