Obesity-related illnesses have become such a problem in Europe that they have reached the top political level, with even the EU council's Lithuanian presidency vowing to raise the issue at upcoming ministerials.
In Europe, an estimated 50% of all men and women were overweight in 2008, and 23% of all women and 20% of men were obese, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
Obesity often results from physical inactivity, and unhealthy diets and is a main risk factors for the development of related non-communicable illnesses such as cancer, diabetes and cardiovascular and lung disease.
Think tanks have predicted that obesity-related diseases will increase the pressure on already stressed healthcare systems in the EU in the future.
This was the subject of a conference on Tuesday (17 September), "Eat well, drink well, move ... A small step for you, a big step for Europe", organised by the International Chair on Cardiometabolic Risk (ICCR). The ICCR's scientific director, Jean-Pierre Després, said that the EU needs to target sedentary behaviours, not obesity per se, as a tool to improve citizens' health.
ICCR Executive Director Jean-Claude Coubard, presented a new manifesto on obesity which states that waist measurement in the future should be used as a vital sign for obesity. It also calls for food quality and healthy drinking, activity.
Androulla Vassiliou, commissioner for education, culture and sport, recently launched an initiative on physical activity and called for a 'European Week of Sport'. She said that participation in sports and physical activities was one of the most effective ways of staying physically and mentally fit, and referred to the ancient Greek saying ‘A healthy mind in a healthy body’.
"Unfortunately, we also know that more than half of Europeans do not meet the physical activity levels set by the WHO. This leads to significant economic and social costs for the member states," the Commissioner stressed.
Vassiliou said that the EU should take on a 'bottom-up approach' on obesity. These kinds of initiatives don't work if they are just politicians telling the public what to do, she said.
"I believe in order to change people’s lifestyles… You can’t impose it from the top. You have to really create the right environment for people to see that it’s worth adopting these changes in their lifestyles," she added.
"If everyone is motivated to organise sports and physical activities; schools, employers, enterprises, local communities… I believe that if everyone is involved I think the public will start learning that this is something which is good for them," the commissioner for sport insisted.
Continued discussions in Council
Després gave his support for the commissioner's initiatives. "We are convinced that indeed the population will abide to this initiative bottom-up. Physical activity is fun and this should be emphasised. It’s clearly a very important component of a plan to reduce the burden of a chronic disease," he said.
"The economic consequences of this societal disease are tremendous for all nations’ economies and even companies have to deal with the financial impact of the fairly large proportions of the employees being obese in terms of healthcare costs and healthcare instruments," the ICCR scientific director added.
Gediminas Černiauskas, the Lithuanian vice-minister for health, said that all EU member states had experience with obesity, and called for a public discussion on healthy lifestyles.
If European public-awareness projects could increase the level of physical activities among the citizens by one minute per day, Černiauskas said, these small steps could yield big results.
"We are lacking actions on different levels even in the EU where we have three Commissioners involved with health, so it’s complicated," the vice-minister for health said, promising that he would pass on the obesity manifesto to the European Council.
"We would like to reflect on your findings in our activities, but also to pass it on to the next presidencies to continue the discussions. We have started the discussions, but we would like to continue because it’s really important," he continued.
Coubard concluded that he hopes the conference won't just be one event for discussion on obesity. Now is time for real action, he stated.
Former Belgian tennis player, Justine Henin, said in an interview at the conference:
"For me I can only talk about my experience but I would advise them to listen to the experts. In my career I had many specialists helping and often went into many details and it always worked best when the message was simple. In the past few years we have heard so many messages. But we all know how to stay healthy, to eat well and move a little bit. In general we know what we have to do and I am sure everyone can take a small step not only for ourselves but also for the next generation."
UNESDA, representing the European soft drinks industry, commented:
"Both the European Commission and the WHO acknowledge that the causes of obesity are multifactorial and need to be addressed through a coordinated, multi-stakeholder approach with governments, industry, the healthcare community and civil society working to educate people on how to eat a balanced diet and lead active and healthy lifestyles.
Taxing food and drink will not educate people and will hit the least well off in society the hardest as they spend the greatest proportion of their income on the weekly shop. Governments across Europe have rejected taxes as they damage economies and jobs while delivering no health benefits. In Europe, soft drinks contribute just 3% of calories to the average daily diet
UNESDA is a founding member of the EU Platform for Action on Diet, Physical Activity and Health which seeks to address the issue of obesity and overweight by encouraging self-regulation. The soft drinks industry made far-reaching commitments to the EU Platform back in 2006 including no sales of its products in primary schools throughout the EU and no advertising to children under 12 on TV, print or online. Compliance is monitored regularly using independent consultants like PWC and the results shared with peers on the Platform."
- 24-25 Oct.: EU Council in Brussels