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U.S. wants you — not WHO — to fight the fat

The Bush Administration is reportedly sitting on a WHO report which calls on individuals to modify their diets, but also wants governments to use taxes and subsidies to urge them to do so, and suggests restrictions on advertising of certain foods.
/ Source: Forbes

The U.S. Federal Trade Commission has been trying to help Americans fight fat for years by cracking down on deceptive diet ads. The United Kingdom has floated a plan to restrict the advertising of fatty foods. What some call an epidemic of obesity in the U.S. has drawn the attention of Coca-Cola, McDonalds, Kraft Foods and others, and has given rise to an industry devoted to the Atkins diet. None of it has worked.

Now the World Health Organization wants to weigh in on the issue, but the Bush Administration is reportedly sitting on the United Nations agency's report which calls on individuals to modify their diets, but also wants governments to use taxes and subsidies to urge them to do so, and suggests restrictions on advertising of certain foods.

While the U.S., with 65 percent of adults overweight, is the world leader in fat people, the WHO says the obesity problem is global. In 1995, there were an estimated 200 million obese adults worldwide. By 2000, that number had increased to over 300 million, according to the WHO Web site. "Contrary to conventional wisdom, the obesity epidemic is not restricted to industrialized societies; in developing countries, it is estimated that over 115 million people suffer from obesity-related problems," the WHO says.

The WHO "Global Strategy on Diet, Physical Activity and Health" says that chronic diseases like cardiovascular conditions, diabetes, stroke, cancers and respiratory diseases account for 59 percent of the 56.5 million disease-related deaths annually, and much of the global disease burden is tied to diet.

It's a big problem — and growing — but the question is what to do about it, especially since obesity is in large part a byproduct of cheaper food, more cars, greater urban sprawl, more TV and videogames, and less manual labor — all world trends that go well beyond diet plans. In recent years, there have been lawsuits in the U.S. against McDonald's , which have been candy for late-night comedians, but which have gotten nowhere in court. The FTC has tried and tried again to restrict advertising of "deceptive" diet products, but there is a case to be made that all diets are deceptive in that they tend not to work for long.

Now with the debate having taken a global turn, the Bush Administration has argued that there is no valid evidence for some of the WHO recommendations, such as the idea of restricting ads geared to children, who, like their parents are getting fatter. The administration also wants the document to emphasize the role of personal responsibility in controlling weight. Sugar-producing nations have backed the U.S. view.

Critics say that the U.S. has let food-industry lobbyists put their thumb on the scale. The industry is said to fear the recommendations of the report even though it would not lead to a binding treaty or any new legal obligations. "It's ironic that the U.S. is the country that invented fast food, Coca-Cola and Twinkies and is now telling the rest of the world how to combat obesity," Bruce Silverglade, legal director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, told USA Today.

But William Steiger, head of the U.S. delegation, said his concern is with the science underlying the report and said it put too much of the burden for diet reform on states and not enough on individuals. "Government-imposed solutions are not always appropriate," Steiger said. "People need to be empowered to take responsibility for their health." The U.S. delegation specifically questions whether the heavy marketing of high-calorie foods and advertising junk food on children's television, which is nothing new, contributes to obesity.

"This is all about how do we motivate people, how do we change attitudes and how do we change behavior. If this strategy is not relevant to individuals, nothing's going to happen," Steiger told the WHO board.

If the WHO strategy is relevant to individuals, though, experience suggests nothing's going to happen anyway.