In a decision seen as a triumph of public health over the sugar industry, the world’s health ministers tentatively agreed Friday on a landmark plan to fight a growing trend of obesity and diseases caused by poor diet and exercise habits.
The nonbinding agreement, expected to be formally approved Saturday by the governing body of the World Health Organization, is a blueprint for countries trying to develop policies that make it easier for people to eat healthier and exercise more.
It offers a comprehensive menu of options for heading off a worldwide explosion in obesity and other diseases linked to diet and physical activity, including diabetes, heart disease, cancer, osteoporosis, malnutrition and tooth decay.
The plan’s recommendation to limit sugar intake became the focus of controversy early on as health advocates feared that objections by sugar-producing countries were going to derail it.
“It is a victory for public health that this went through without the sugar industry destroying it,” said Dr. Kaare Norum, a Norwegian obesity expert who advised WHO on the development of the plan.
Brazil, a major sugar producer, said agreement was reached after language was inserted to ensure the plan could not be interpreted as “a tool for any kind of trade distorting measures such as subsidies.”
“It’s not only a health document. It’s a political document which contains guidelines. Countries have to feel comfortable,” a senior Brazilian delegate said on condition of anonymity.
Independent health advocates said the changes did not compromise the strength of the diet plan.
Strategy targets eating habits
The global strategy sets out recommendations such as the reduction of sugar, fat and salt in processed food; the control of food marketing to children; as well as more comprehensive nutrition labeling and health education.
It also provides ideas on ways to make healthier choices easier at school, work and home.
Approaches could include better urban planning to make walking and cycling more popular and tying toy promotions in with healthy fast-food meals.
The strategy also could be used to build programs that subsidize the provision of fruits and vegetables in school cafeterias or to encourage video games powered by bicycle.
“There was a lot of lobbying from different stakeholders, but in the end public health has been able to be recognized and that’s the most important point,” said Dr. Catherine LeGales-Camus, assistant director for noninfectious diseases at the World Health Organization.
As the Western lifestyle — full of cheap and tasty food and technology that allows work and leisure to be less physically demanding — stepped up its invasion of the developing world, the looming threat prompted countries two years ago to direct the U.N. health agency to come up with a global strategy to help them figure out what to do.
The world now has more fat people than hungry people, and infectious diseases — though still a significant scourge in some parts — are no longer responsible for most of the world’s deaths.
Although the general tone of discussions on the plan this week at the annual meeting of top health officials indicated most countries were eager to move forward, it appeared to squeeze through only after late negotiations on the details.
Attempts to remove the recommendation for sugar limits failed, but developing countries’ fears that the plan could harm their agricultural industries emerged as the final stumbling block.
Brazil led the effort to finesse the plan’s language to allay concerns over trade.
Major agricultural exporters like Brazil, Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia and Argentina are trying to get the World Trade Organization to abolish agricultural subsidies because such support allows rich countries to compete unfairly in international trade.
They were uncomfortable with references to subsidies in the diet plan, which said they can be used to encourage healthier eating.
“We urge the WHO not to place itself in the position whereby its recommendations may be utilized as another tool for establishing trade barriers,” Guyana said during the negotiations, adding that unless those concerns were addressed, Caribbean countries would not endorse the health plan.