Updated 29 January 2019

Study finds obesity caused by big business not greedy people

Rates of obesity, 'the paramount health challenge' of our time, continue to soar all over the world largely due to the influence of multinational junk food industries, a major new report says.

Malnutrition, which includes both obesity and undernutrition, is the leading cause of poor health around the world, and the culprits for the costly obesity epidemic aren’t individual couch potatoes. Instead, governments have failed to curb "big food" placing everybody’s health at stake, according to a major report. 

Rates of obesity, “the paramount health challenge” of our time, continue to soar all over the world largely due to the influence of multinational junk food industries, found the report authors; a commission of experts assembled by the Lancet medical journal. 

“No country has successfully reversed its epidemic because the systemic and institutional drivers of obesity remain largely unabated,” noted the commission. 

The experts criticised governments for their “patchy progress” and “inertia” in implementing evidence-based obesity-prevention policies including taxes on unhealthy foods and beverages. 

The report fingered the actions of "big food" companies as stumbling blocks to progress: “For example, national food producers and transnational ultra-processed food and beverage manufacturers often exert a disproportionate influence on legislators and the policy making process.”

Producing unhealthy foods should be an offence

In South Africa, public health experts have blamed beverage companies, and their lobby groups, for stalling the country’s introduction of the tax on sugary-sweetened drinks. 

One of the commission’s recommendations is the barring of these industries from negotiations on policies aimed at regulating unhealthy products. 

This is in sharp contrast to the way in which negotiations on the health promotion levy, known as the sugar tax, took place in the National Economic and Development Council in South Africa.

Activists have criticised this process for favouring the interests of big business and blamed industry influence for a weaker tax than initially proposed. The tax is roughly equivalent to a 10% levy on a common soda, but Treasury recommended a levy closer to 20%. 

Without recognising how obesity is influenced by the entire food system and food environment, people classified as obese are often stigmatised and judged negatively. 

“Holding people responsible for their obesity distracts attention from the obesogenic systems that produce obesity,” noted the commission. 

Policy interventions including taxes, limiting the marketing of unhealthy products, regulating the labelling of processed foods and subsidising healthy alternatives, need to be prioritised by governments. These policy measures have been consistently identified by several major bodies as much more effective in curbing obesity than interventions only aimed at individuals.  

The report also highlighted the impacts of climate change on health and stressed the need for broad and multi-sectoral policy interventions addressing all these challenges. 

The fight against obesity should be ramped up to resemble that against tobacco with the commission calling for a United Nations treaty on promoting healthy food similar to the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control.

Comparing the health dangers of junk food to those of smoking, a commentator in the Lancet report said: “[Governments] allow the food companies to produce unhealthy foods, it should be an offence.”

– Health-e News.


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