GENEVA, May 29 – Alarmed at expanding waistlines around the world, the UN’s health agency has urged countries to get serious about reining in a ballooning obesity crisis, proposing an action plan that includes taxing unhealthy snacks and rules against marketing junk food to children.
Once considered only a problem in high-income countries like the United States, where nearly 70 percent of the adult population is overweight, obesity is now growing fastest in developing nations in Africa and Latin America, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO).
As the urgency to tackle the crisis grows, member countries of the UN body late on Monday adopted a 2013-2020 action plan to fight against diseases like cardiovascular illness, cancer, and chronic diabetes.
“The cost of inaction far outweighs the cost of taking action,” the body said.
The plan, which targets risky lifestyle choices such as smoking, alcohol consumption and an unhealthy diet, includes a goal to halt the rise in global obesity levels by 2020.
“The fight against obesity is… one of the most important factors in fighting noncommunicable diseases,” Francesco Branca, WHO’s head of nutrition for health and development, told reporters in Geneva.
Obesity levels nearly doubled between 1980 and 2008, when at least one in three adults worldwide was overweight and around one in 10 was considered obese, according to the WHO.
At least 2.8 million adults die each year as a result of being overweight or obese, not counting the large percentages of diabetes, heart disease and cancer cases attributable to overweight, according to the UN agency’s numbers.
The world’s fattest country is the tiny South Pacific island nation of Nauru, where 71 percent of the population is considered obese, WHO figures show.
The newly adopted plan “is extremely important in addressing one of the most devastating health crises of our time,” said John Stewart of the watchdog Corporate Accountability International, describing obesity as “an epidemic”.
Since foods high in fat, sugar and salt are often cheaper than healthier alternatives, the battle against the bulge is increasingly spreading to poorer nations, observers say.
“In many high-income countries the problem is levelling off, but the worst problems we see are in low- and middle-income countries where the rate of obesity… is increasing at a very fast pace,” Godfrey Xuereb, a WHO expert on the issue, told AFP.