Experts urge ‘Big Tobacco’ fight against junk food
INTERNATIONAL - Powerful corporations are driving the obesity crisis by promoting junk food in the way tobacco firms push cigarettes, experts have warned.
A major report released yesterday 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”. 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 was urgent with a billion people globally suffering malnutrition and 2 billion eating too much.
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, both are 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 were 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 (R680m) 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 healthy 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 David Cameron’s obesity strategy have failed.
But Tim Rycroft, of the Food and Drink Federation, said: “Drawing a comparison between tobacco and food is deeply irresponsible.