Fat Chance

Reducing obesity -- the leading cause of non-communicable diseases in the world -- has become a political game. At stake are the interests of the multi-trillion dollar sugar and food industries. Standing up for them is the US government, and supporting it in the sly are several developing nations.

VIBHA VARSHNEY reports from the World Health Organization's headquarters on how a plan, which simply says eat healthy, is heating up the waters of Lake Geneva

Published: Saturday 15 May 2004

Fat Chance

-- (Credit: Illustrations: EMKAY)On May 18, 2004, when governments of 192 World Health Organization (WHO) member countries gather at Geneva for the world health assembly, one Mrs Sharma in one town, Jabalpur perhaps, will be making her way purposefully to the new swanky fast food joint in Sadar Bazar. As she delightfully feeds upon the Rs 149.99 combo meal of a regular burger and an extra large chilled cola, the assembly will be debating WHO's 'global strategy on diet, physical activity and health'.

While Mrs Sharma's bulging body adjusts to the additional pound of adipose tissue, the WHO shall have made it emphatically clear -- obesity is a disease and it's responsible for more than 60 per cent of all deaths caused by non-communicable diseases (NCDs) in the world.

Supper done, Mrs Sharma shall drive home to rest a bit. WHO would have by then put forth its global strategy to combat obesity: reduce sugar consumption and reform agriculture and trade practices worldwide to promote such diets. While Mrs Sharma sleeps bellyful, a bitter fight shall break out on the strategy. The strategy is not binding on countries, but still each word in it will be argued over. The US will say food is a matter of personal choice, you can't blame any industry for somebody being overweight. Mauritius will complain that the strategy targets sugar, the lifeblood of its economy. India, like Mrs Sharma, might be caught napping or worse still prevaricating.

As hired lobbyists of the sugar and food industry try to prove that any link between obesity, disease and food is bad science, Mrs Sharma would have reached Jabalpur's flashiest fitness centre and joined a Rs 20,000-per-month body-firming and figure-shaping slimming course. While she huffs and puffs on the treadmill, civic groups will be protesting worldwide that the strategy has been weakened because of pressure from the US and industries.

While Mrs Sharma spends her thousands, the assembly of nations would have fought over business estimated to be worth trillions of dollars. At the end, there may emerge a global strategy to prevent every Mrs Sharma from being force-fed into obesity. There may emerge a strategy to ensure that public health wins the battle against trade interests.


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