Published on Friday, January 16, 2004 by Reuters
Activists Say U.S. Tries to Sap World Obesity Fight
by Stephanie Nebehay
GENEVA - Consumer groups accused the United States on Friday of trying to sabotage a global fight against obesity targeting junk food and soft drinks.
The World Health Organization (WHO) executive, which includes the United States and 31 other countries, will debate on Tuesday a plan drawn up by the U.N. agency after talks with member states, nutritional experts and the food industry.
The Global Strategy on Diet, Physical Activity and Health says poor diets and lack of exercise are the leading cause of illnesses including heart disease, type 2 diabetes and certain cancers. These account for nearly 60 percent of 56.5 million deaths a year deemed preventable.
As well as recommending lower intake of sugar, sodium and artery-clogging trans-fatty acids, the WHO plan urges countries to restrict food and beverage advertisements aimed at children. It also suggests that governments gear their taxation and subsidy policies to encourage healthy eating habits.
But activist groups charged that the U.S. administration, under pressure from the domestic food industry, aims to weaken the plan when it comes before the executive board, which meets from January 19-24.
Senior U.S. health department official William Steiger, who sits on the board, has challenged some of the findings of a nutrition study carried out with the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, which forms the basis for the strategy.
In an interview with the Washington Post on Friday, he said: "We have a whole series of potential changes we'd like to see... What's lacking is the notion of personal responsibility as opposed to what the government can do."
LEAKED TO ACTIVISTS
In a letter to WHO chief Lee Jong-Wook, which was leaked to activists, Steiger said the WHO-FAO report did not meet U.S. scientific standards, including peer review criteria.
"The assertion that heavy marketing of energy-dense foods or fast food outlets increases the risk of obesity is supported by almost no data," his letter said.
"No data have yet clearly demonstrated that the advertising on children's television causes obesity."
Steiger also said the WHO/FAO Report exceeded the two U.N. agencies' mandates by addressing "broad areas of trade, agricultural subsidies and advertising."
"The Bush Administration is putting the interests of the junk food industry ahead of the health of people -- including children -- on a global scale," Commercial Alert, a non-profit group based in Portland, Oregon, said in a statement.
WHO officials said they expected a significant number of lobbyists representing the Grocery Manufacturers of America and the Sugar Association as well as food interests from other countries to be in Geneva for the meeting.
"These tactics are reminiscent of the tobacco industry's sinister efforts to oppose global anti-smoking initiatives," said the Washington-based Center for Science in the Public Interest.
Copyright 2004 Reuters Ltd