Photo by Towfiqu barbhuiya on Unsplash
Obesity is one of the biggest health crises facing the world today, with nearly 1 billion of us living with disease.
World Obesity Day is held every year to raise awareness about the obesity epidemic that is affecting the world.
This year’s event was marked on 4 March and it is a timely reminder of an ever-growing health issue that is also causing rising concern to health professionals.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), no less than 39% of adults across the world are overweight, while 13% are obese. Obesity is recognized as being the fifth leading cause of death globally and is linked to a number of health complications including type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and some forms of cancer.
In Europe, the average obesity level has risen by a staggering 161% since 1975, with Malta, Hungary and Lithuania being the countries most affected by this “obesity epidemic”, while, Austria, Italy and Denmark are faring slightly better. The differences can be partially explained by cultural attitudes to food, snacking and exercise, but government policy remains a key tool to manage this epidemic.
The European Parliament has launched an intergroup on obesity to address this issue as a prioritized chronic disease and make resilient health systems a reality. Covid-19 has also, unfortunately, exacerbated the issues of a sedentary lifestyle, which is a leading contributor to obesity and to other deleterious health habits like snacking.
The European Commission has introduced several measures to address childhood obesity in the EU, as one in three children aged 6 to 9 are overweight or obese. In the last decade, the EU launched its school fruit, vegetable, and milk scheme and the EU action plan on childhood obesity, which aims to promote healthy lifestyle choices for everyone, especially children. The Commission’s Farm to Fork strategy is also calling on the food and retail industries to increase the availability and affordability of healthy food choices.
Obesity is a risk factor for various other health problems and puts pressure on policymakers to fight the crisis and nudge citizens to change their lifestyles. In the EU, Bulgaria has the highest mortality rate due to obesity, followed by Romania and Latvia. France has the lowest mortality rate, followed by Sweden and the Netherlands. Healthier food, more exercise and the avoidance of snacking are the central policy objectives.
However, there are simple and effective ways to reduce the risk of obesity. One such way is to opt for gum instead of snacking (one of the acknowledged causes of obesity).
According to a study published in the Journal of Dental Research, chewing sugar-free gum can help reduce calorie intake, curb cravings, and increase feelings of fullness. This makes gum a great alternative to snacking and can help in reducing the risk of obesity.
Sugar taxes are high on the agenda both within EU countries and at the supranational level. In theory, the tax aims to reduce the consumption of these drinks by making them more expensive but strong evidence of decreased consumption is hard to come by.
Italian MEP Nicola Caputo warns that such taxes are “simply a levy on citizens. Studies show that taxes on consumer goods have an inflationary effect and harm the poorest”.
There may be some angles through which a sugar tax could be salvaged from the perspective of public economics. For example, raising revenue in this way would enable expenditure on sports initiatives and healthier food options in schools. While initially compelling, upon further reflection one wonders why, if a consumption tax is not effective in reducing consumption, such initiatives should not be funded via general taxation? This would nullify their inflationary effect and reduce the incidence of tax revenues on the poorest income deciles.
Writing in the British Medical Journal, Prof. Jack Winkler, Emeritus Professor of Nutrition Policy at London Metropolitan University, argues that sugar taxes of this kind “would have to be enormous to have any effect” but could be reformulated to be more effective.
Speaking on the UK sugar tax, he clarified that “it was designed to influence manufacturers, not consumers”. By making more sugary options comparably more expensive, it incentivises the reduction of sugar content (not its elimination) in manufacturing processes. This is a more intelligent method of using the price-competitive elements of the market economy to drive reductions in sugar content. That said, due to the effect of Covid-19 in worsening the obesity crisis, evidence for the success of the UK policy is not compelling either.
World Obesity Day is a recent innovation but is observed globally with the view of promoting practical solutions to end the global obesity crisis.
This year’s event served as a reminder of the growing obesity epidemic and the need for collective efforts to address this issue.
While many government initiatives have proved to be misguided or ineffective, others including the promotion of healthy eating and snacking habits, and the promotion of community sports have been enduringly effective at helping communities maintain a healthy weight.
Only by focusing on people and habits can we hope to start turning the numbers around.