• Reducing the Size of the Obesity Problem

    Saturday 24th January 2004 - 3:45pm - 5:00pm

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  • Reducing the Size of the Obesity Problem


    Annual Meeting 2004

    "There is no question," said Tommy G. Thompson, US Secretary of Health and Human Services, "that obesity is a huge issue." Is regulation the answer? What should the private sector do? What strategies should government pursue?

    In defining the magnitude of the obesity problem, the panel looked both within America and beyond. Thompson pointed out that in 1991, no US state had an obesity rate higher than 14%. Today, no state except Colorado has an obesity rate lower than 15%. One reason, said Janet Vo�Chief Executive Officer, World Heart Federation, Switzerland, is a cultural shift. For example, the time the average family takes preparing meals has gone down from two hours to 15 minutes in the past few years. Another cause of obesity, said Ed Mayo, Chief Executive, National Consumer Council (NCC), United Kingdom, is poverty. Vo�ited examples of societies in the developing world where the obese coexist with the malnourished. In Beijing, 20% of children are obese, while Malaysia has seen its adult obesity rate triple in the past few years.

    Mayo said that corporations bear some responsibility for the problem. Because of rising health costs, he said, "we're essentially subsidizing the food industry to peddle junk food to kids". He suggested examining the possibility of taxes on fatty foods: "it seems to me bizarre to rule out any one tool." Antony Burgmans, Chairman, Unilever, Netherlands, disagreed vigorously. "We tried tax with tobacco," he said, "and it didn't work." Richard W. Edelman, President and Chief Executive Officer, Edelman PR Worldwide, USA, said one appropriate challenge is "to make good for you foods cool". Thompson felt regulation is the wrong road to follow. He said that corporations like Unilever, Pepsi and Coke had all voluntarily changed their products and practices to respond better to health concerns. "Good quality foods right now," said Thompson, "are good for the bottom line." Unilever, for example, was asked to reduce trans fatty acids and in response eliminated them altogether.

    Moderator Gabriella Stern, Senior Editor, Europe, Middle East & Africa, Dow Jones Newswires, United Kingdom, challenged Thompson about whether he is "in the pocket" of the food industry. "That is absolutely an absurdity," responded Thompson. "I have no reluctance to bring somebody to the woodshed if I don't feel they are doing enough," he said. Mayo retorted that "much of what we hear in the corporate sector is icing on a rotten cake."

    Linda Bardo Nicholls, Chairman, Australia Post, explained how "addressing obesity has made us more money." The Australia Post pays bonuses to work teams that get healthy and lays off employees who are too obese to work. The result is lower health insurance costs and healthier workers. "I thank you for your visionary vision," Thompson told Nicholls. He said that in the US, Union Pacific and Kraft have launched similar programmes with similar results.

    Vo�raised the World Health Organization (WHO) for its anti obesity initiative. It's the first time that such a global collaborative effort has been launched. Francis S. Collins, Director, The National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI), USA, discussed the genetic aspects of obesity. "We should not assume what we now know is all we'll ever know," he said, but there is already a clear link between heredity and obesity 60% of the Body Mass Index (BMI) is hereditary. An anti obesity drug may be in the offing, but Collins wondered whether the release of such a drug "would take the wind out of the sails" of the other anti obesity initiatives. Participants agreed that even if such a drug were developed, the other programmes should continue.

    Related Link

    Annual Meeting Global Health Initiative


  • Antony Burgmans Antony Burgmans
    Former Chairman, Unilever, Netherlands

    Studies in Business, Netherlands; studies in Political and Social Science, University of Stockholm; ...

  • Richard W. Edelman Richard W. Edelman
    President and Chief Executive Officer, Edelman, USA

    BA and MBA, Harvard. Member of the Board: Ad Council; Atlantic Council; Children's Aid Society; Nati...

Moderated by

  • Gabriella Stern Gabriella Stern
    Deputy Managing Editor, Wall Street Journal, USA

    1982, BA in English; 1988, MA in Political Science, Yale University. 1983-91, Correspondent, Omaha W...