Davos Agenda

Why we need public-private partnerships to address the global health challenge of obesity

Copenhagen, Denmark where the Lighthouse Life Science programme is aiming to tackle obesity and health for all

Copenhagen, Denmark where the Lighthouse Life Science programme is aiming to tackle obesity and health for all Image: Jesper Edvardsen for Cities Changing Diabetes

Camilla Sylvest
Executive Vice President, Commercial Strategy & Corporate Affairs, Novo Nordisk
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Davos Agenda

This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting

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  • 1 billion adults are predicted to live with obesity by 2030 and obesity is considered a ‘gateway disease,’ linking to more than 200 possible conditions.
  • It is estimated that a significant percentage of our weight is dependent on our genes.
  • No country, company or institution can tackle obesity alone, it requires local and global multi-sector collaborations, including public-private partnerships.

I meet many people through my work, but some make a lasting impression. Rebecca is one of them. She is from the UK and has lived with obesity her whole life. Although she is now in her early 20s, Rebecca told me she’s still strongly affected by the bullying she experienced at school, having had to balance daily stigma with the constant struggle with her weight. Even her mother, who worked hard preparing healthy food and ensuring that Rebecca was active, was stigmatized. Her story is unfortunately not unique.

The sheer numbers speak volumes: 764 million adults live with obesity (meaning having a Body Mass Index of 30 or more) and this number is predicted to grow to 1 billion by 2030.

Moreover, 157 million children live with obesity and, even more worryingly, this number is expected to double by 2030. Studies show that if you live with obesity as a child, three out of four children will carry this status into adulthood. If we do not stop the trend with the children, we will not tackle the obesity challenge.

Despite the prevalence, the general perception in society, including healthcare professionals and policy-makers, is that obesity is the sole responsibility of the individual. You should just run more and eat less. But science shows us a much more complex picture.

Have you read?

Obesity has major impacts on our health and the economy

After years of research, we now know that obesity is caused by the interaction of biological, genetic, social, psychological and environmental factors. Some studies have estimated that up to 40-70% of our weight can depend on our genes.

The understanding is slowly growing and obesity is now recognised as a chronic disease by major medical associations, as well as the European Commission.

Why is this important? The answer is that the health consequences of obesity are significant. Obesity is considered a ‘gateway disease’ to other conditions. It is the second leading preventable cause of cancer deaths and it is believed to account for 80-85% of the risk of developing type 2 diabetes. Overall obesity is associated with more than 200 possible conditions.

Medical conditions associated with obesity
Medical conditions associated with obesity Image: WHO European Regional Obesity Report 2022/ Malnick & Knobler, 2006 (52); GBD 2015 Obesity Collaborators et al., 2017 (53); Lauby-Secretan et al., 2016 (54); Brock et al., 2020 (55); Luppino et al. (2010) (56)

Not treating obesity is costly. Obesity is putting a strain on already overburdened health systems: 70% of all treatment costs for diabetes are obesity-related. By 2050, overweight and its related conditions will reduce gross domestic product (GDP) by 3.3% in OECD countries. The impact on productivity is thought to be equal to a workforce reduction of 54 million people per year.

According to the World Health Organization, addressing obesity is critical towards achieving the United Nations (UN) Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which aim to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure that by 2030 all people enjoy peace and prosperity.

Clearly, obesity is one of the major societal challenges for world leaders today and with no country on track to halt the rise of obesity by 2030, urgent action is needed.

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What is the World Economic Forum doing to improve healthcare systems?

Obesity can not be tackled alone

So, what does Novo Nordisk do? Having worked with research and development in obesity for more than 20 years, we are committed to finding solutions and closing the knowledge gaps. But it has become more and more evident to us, that no company, country or institution can do it alone. We have to join forces to tackle this challenge and local and global multi-sector collaborations, including public-private partnerships, are key.

Novo Nordisk engages in several partnerships and is a leading partner in a holistic public-private partnership model called the Lighthouse Life Sciences – Healthy Weight project. This was launched by the Danish government and aims to pilot new approaches to obesity prevention, early identification and treatment, with a focus on social inequity. Examples of interventions include guided programmes for pregnant women living with obesity, using virtual reality in schools and employer-based programmes. Municipalities, workplace and healthcare settings, pension funds, employers and health tech companies have all come together in this multi-sector collaboration to co-create and test innovative solutions.

Scaling the Lighthouse model

I would like to zoom in on the employer part. Pension funds and large companies, such as those employing truck drivers and cleaning staff, have initiated their own pilots, introducing loss-management programmes with clinical supervision, personal coaching and technological solutions. The Lighthouse model is capturing attention outside of Denmark and we are committed to sharing our experiences and seeing the Lighthouse model flourish in more nations.

But more needs to be done. If we don’t stop the trend of ever more people getting obesity, our health systems will be further overburdened and potentially collapse.

We are steadfastly looking to drive change in diabetes, obesity and serious chronic diseases. We believe our best chance is through solid multi-sector public-private partnerships that are rooted in science-led approaches to obesity prevention and care.

I am, therefore, delighted that, together with the World Economic Forum, we are actively exploring how we can galvanise our collective power to help with obesity – for people like Rebecca.

We hope you will join us on this journey.

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