Powerful corporations are driving the obesity crisis by promoting junk food in the way tobacco firms push cigarettes, experts have warned.
A major report today calls on all governments to unite against ‘Big Food’ in the way they once took on ‘Big Tobacco’.
The Lancet Commission on Obesity, compiled by 43 academics from 14 countries, accuses politicians of ‘decades of inertia’.
The report was last night condemned by critics as ‘nanny state’ authoritarianism and rejected by the food industry as ‘deeply irresponsible’. But the authors said the health crisis is urgent – with one billion people globally suffering malnutrition and two billion eating too much [File photo]
They claim there is a ‘fundamental and irreconcilable conflict’ between much of the food industry and the health of the nation.
The experts have now called for a global treaty to limit the political influence of Big Food, modelled on the UN agreement signed on tobacco 15 years ago. And they demanded taxes on red meat and other unhealthy food to subsidise vegetables and schemes that promote walking and cycling.
The report was last night condemned by critics as ‘nanny state’ authoritarianism and rejected by the food industry as ‘deeply irresponsible’.
But the authors said the health crisis is urgent – with one billion people globally suffering malnutrition and two billion eating too much.
Powerful corporations are driving the obesity crisis by promoting junk food in the way tobacco firms push cigarettes, experts have warned. A major report today calls on all governments to unite against ‘Big Food’ in the way they once took on ‘Big Tobacco’ [File photo]
In Britain alone, two thirds of adults are now overweight – resulting in soaring rates of heart disease, diabetes and cancer.
Professor William Dietz of George Washington University in the US, a report author, said: ‘In 50 years, if we are not able to reduce this, we will have this incredible scourge of both obesity and undernutrition and the planet will be burning.’
He added: ‘Although food clearly differs from tobacco because it is a necessity to support human life, unhealthy food and beverages are not. The similarities with Big Tobacco lie in the damage they induce and the behaviours of the corporations that profit from them.’
Professor Boyd Swinburn, of the University of Auckland, added: ‘Until now, undernutrition and obesity have been seen as polar opposites of either too few or too many calories.
‘In reality, they are both driven by the same unhealthy, inequitable food systems, underpinned by the same political economy that is single-focused on economic growth, and ignores the negative health and equity outcomes.’
The academics said food giants are also wrecking the environment by creating a global ‘syndemic’ – three simultaneous pandemics of obesity, malnutrition and climate change. And the scientists accused food manufacturers of trying to ‘obstruct’ obesity prevention with sophisticated lobbying campaigns.
The 61-page report says strategies include ‘undermining and contesting scientific evidence’ and ‘framing nutrition as a matter of individual responsibility’.
Soft drinks companies spend £38million a year trying to counter efforts to reduce fizzy drinks consumption, they said.
The report calls for new taxes on unhealthy foods – particularly red meat – and scrapping subsidies for farming and fuel.
Using the cash generated to promote health diets and exercise would be a ‘triple win’ – hitting obesity, improving healthy eating and reducing climate change by cutting car use.
They insisted governments need to introduce new laws because voluntary agreements – such as ones that defined David Cameron’s obesity strategy – have failed.
Professor Corinna Hawkes of City University in London, another report author, insisted the commission ‘is not trying to put the food industry out of business’.
But she added: ‘People are just encouraged to eat too much and this means there is over-consumption in some areas and under-consumption in others.’
The steps to curb global health crisis
- Taxes on unhealthy food such as red meat to reduce the amount we eat.
- End of £3.8trillion global subsidies for farming and fuel industries.
- Use cash to cut price of vegetables and fund cycle and walk-to-work schemes.
- Curbs on marketing and advertising of unhealthy foods and clearer labels.
- Global treaty to restrict influence of the food industry, like the UN’s tobacco-control treaty in 2003.
- All political donations from food firms to be declared and policed by ombudsmen.
- £760million global Food Fund to help combat big business.
The report calls for a new ‘Framework Convention on Food Systems’ – modelled on the 2003 Framework Convention on Tobacco Control – to help fight junk food firms.
It said: ‘Such a commitment would recognise the fundamental and irreconcilable conflict that exists between some food and drinks industries’ interests and those of public health and the environment.’
But Tim Rycroft, of the Food and Drink Federation, said: ‘Drawing a comparison between tobacco and food is deeply irresponsible. Food and drink are essential to sustain life while even the smallest dose of tobacco is harmful to health.
‘Only those with the most extreme of viewpoints could believe that denying our industry a seat at the policy-making table would help to improve UK diets and nutrition.’
Christopher Snowdon, of the Institute of Economic Affairs think-tank, added: ‘Nanny-state zealots are no longer hiding their intention to use the anti-tobacco blueprint to control other areas of our lives.
‘They are openly contemptuous of freedom of choice and make no secret of their desire to bypass democracy and use unaccountable global institutions to further their agenda.
‘If these authoritarian regulations are introduced, a thriving and competitive food market which responds to consumer demand will be replaced by a ‘state-anchored approach’ in which bureaucrats and activists decide what the public is allowed to eat.’