European obesity trend threatens life and health expectations

The current obesity trend could undermine the central demographic assumption that everybody will live longer and healthier lives, says the Commission Director General of the DG Sanco, Robert Madelin, in an interview with EURACTIV.

“The obesity phenomenon could in 10-20 years time undermine the central assumption  about our demography, which is that we’re all going to go on living longer and healthier lives,” said the Director General of DG Sanco, Robert Madelin  in an interview with EURACTIV when asked how serious the obesity problem really is in Europe. He said that the situation is already very bad in the Mediterranean countries, where adolescent obesity rates now reach over 30% in Greece and Italy. The worst ‘performing’ countries in Europe, the UK and Poland, are now catching up with the United States.

Obesity is clearly a behavioural issue. Ultimately, each individual could be of an ideal body weight – so why are we not?” asked Madelin. He puts the responsibility partly on genes, partly on the way we have learned to behave and partly on our modern life style. Emphasising that “a big part of the problem is environmental” Madelin sees a three-dimensional role for Europe in the obesity fight: EU legislation on issues such as food labelling; stimulation of increased political commitment; and provision of a ‘test space’ to learn what works and to share best practice.

With regard to the current EU dossier on food labelling, Madelin says that education and information campaigns clearly prevail over regulating. “The philosophy is don’t regulate unless you have to,” Madelin said, while adding that some regulation is needed, as companies would be distressed if there were 25 regulations on food labelling, instead of just one. 

Through the EU platform on diet, physical activity and health, the Commission is currently trying to stimulate NGOs and economic operators to do effective intervention on obesity. “The more effective intervention, the less market failure, less amount of public intervention needed.”

For the food sector the business case for healthy food  is in sales, and this argument is increasingly understood. Madelin thinks public intervention can urge business to accelerate the move.

Click to read the full interview.


Obesity is one of the greatest public health challenges of the 21st century. Since the 1980s, the number of those affected in the EU has tripled and continues to increase at an alarming rate, especially among children. 7% of total EU healthcare costs are  estimated to be spent on treating obesity-related illnesses.  

The Commission adopted, in December 2005, a Green Paper on obesity entitled Promoting healthy diets and physical activity: a European dimension for the prevention of overweight, obesity and chronic diseases.


  • Following the consultation on the Commission's Green Paper on nutrition and physical activity, a White Paper on the issue is expected early in 2007.