A United Nations investigator kicked off the World Health Organization (WHO) annual summit with grim remarks on Monday evening in Geneva, declaring, “Unhealthy diets are now a greater threat to global health than tobacco.”
This statement was delivered by professor and investigator Olivier De Schutter, who reports to the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva on his findings related to food rights.
In a 2012 special report to the U.N. Human Rights Council, De Schutter called a tax on unhealthy foods a high priority, along with regulation of saturated fats, salt and sugar, cracking down on junk food advertising and supporting local food production. On Monday, De Schutter referenced this report when he said, “It has been two years since my report on nutrition and the right to food … Yet obesity continues to advance — and diabetes, heart disease and other health complications along with it. The warning signs are not being heard.”
Again referencing the regulatory response to the tobacco industry and nicotine addiction, De Schutter suggested, “Just as the world came together to regulate the risks of tobacco, a bold framework convention on adequate diets must now be agreed.”
De Schutter has previously suggested taxing unhealthy food, better regulation for high-fat and high-sugar foods, and limiting junk food advertising.
De Schutter isn’t the first to draw the tobacco industry comparison. According to investigative reporting by the New York Times, in April 1999 Kraft Vice President Michael Mudd conceded to a room full of food company executives, “As a culture, we’ve become upset by the tobacco companies advertising to children, but we sit idly by while the food companies do the very same thing. And we could make a claim that the toll taken on the public health by a poor diet rivals that taken by tobacco.”
To add fuel to the growing movement to fight junk food, in a July 2011 op-ed penned for the New York Times Mark Bittman wrote, “By profiting as a society from the foods that are making us sick and using those funds to make us healthy, the United States would gain the same kind of prestige that we did by attacking smoking.”
Will the way forward mimic regulatory responses to tobacco? It may be too early to tell. But one thing is clear: obesity and its costs, health-related and otherwise, are still on the rise. As De Schutter says, “Attempts to promote healthy diets will only work if the food systems underpinning them are put right.”
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