The recent failure of the WTO trade talks could have serious implications for our culture of obesity, and is an issue that must be dealt with urgently, claims a scientist.
"We have concentrated on using taxpayers' money to featherbed the very parts of the food chain that are causing the obesity epidemic today," professor Philip James, who chairs the International Obesity TaskForce (IOTF), told this week's International Congress on Obesity in Sydney.
"The over-production of oil, fat and sugar, largely due to government subsidies to protect farm industry revenues, has contributed over decades to the health crisis we have today.
"People have paid three times over - firstly in taxes to support hundreds of millions of dollars in subsidies in the US, the EU and elsewhere, secondly in the resulting harm to their health and thirdly in the health insurance taxes and premiums required to cope with a major burden of preventable chronic disease."
Talks end in failure
The Doha Development Agenda, launched in November 2001, in the Qatari capital, Doha, aimed to free global trade by cutting industrial and agricultural tariffs and by reducing farm subsidies, with a special focus on achieving concrete benefits for developing countries.
But WTO secretary general Pascal Lamy suspended talks this summer after WTO members failed to reach a meaningful consensus. This effectively meant that the much-heralded talks, which were supposed to introduce important changes in global trade tariffs, ended in failure.
Many remain pessimistic that any positive settlement can be reached. James has added a new dimension to these fears by arguing that unchanged farm policies could continue to damage people's health.
Stronger lead from governments
James argues that governments now need to take a stronger lead in using the health clauses allowed under WTO rules to protect people's health. Some countries have had some success in using regulations to control harmful dietary components, he claimed.
Denmark, for example, has effectively banned trans-fats with the possibility of a two-year jail sentence for wilful breaches of the regulations. And in Ghana, James said that the government has successfully regulated to control the proportion of fat allowed with meat imports, to reduce the amount of high-fat products entering the country.
The IOTF is using this week's International Congress on Obesity to raise a number of related issues. It also issued a statement urging that children be better protected from exploitative marketing techniques used on the internet.
The organisation claimed that food companies are getting around self-imposed restrictions on advertising by using the internet as a primary means of communication.
"At the moment, the need to protect children from commercial exploitation is being largely overlooked by the food and advertising industries," said professor Boyd Swinburn, president of the Australasian Society for the Study of Obesity. - (Decision News Media, September 2006)
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