Europe urged to recognise ‘chronic’ obesity

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Obesity should be formally recognised as a chronic disease, campaigners urged this week, saying Europe is in the grip of an "obesity epidemic" with half its citizens overweight.

Campaigners stepped up their calls for Europe to formally recognise obesity as a chronic disease ahead of European Obesity Day on 21 May.

The move came as stakeholders groups warned that chronic, and long-term diseases in general, face cuts in the upcoming EU research budget reforms and pushed for commitments to EU funding.

European Obesity Day President Jean-Paul Allonsius, speaking at a lunch staged in the European Parliament to raise awareness of the day, called on the EU and member states to recognise obesity as a chronic disease, and help sufferers to find ways of living with the condition.

He said: "This would require the creation of formal healthcare policies to address what is now an EU-wide epidemic."

At present only Portugal recognises obesity as a chronic disease.

European Obesity Day is aiming to achieve the first successful EU citizens' initiative petition with a call on member states and the EU executive to recognise obesity as a chronic disease.

It also wants the Commission to help develop clinical guidelines on weight loss and to develop a public 'scorecard' of member states' efforts to reduce obesity, encouraging the sharing of best practice. It believes such actions will be easier to achieve once the condition is recognised as a chronic disorder.

David Haslam, a GP and clinical director of the National Obesity Forum in the UK, said the EU should support people with obesity – and claimed there was evidence of a link between obesity, especially in middle-aged women, and the onset of Alzheimer's disease.

Chronic diseases to lose out in research re-jig?

Meanwhile, chronic disease in general is in danger of suffering funding cuts under the new research framework programme – FP8 – according to the European Public Health Association (EUPHA).

At a meeting in Brussels this week (4 May), EUPHA's co-ordinator for public health research, Professor Mark McCarthy, said: "Spending at present is distorted towards industry and pharmaceutical. We need research linked to public policy."

McCarthy said that under the current EU research programmes, around 20% of spending under the structural funds is directed at health research, equivalent to around €70 billion over seven years, and a further €6 billion comes from the FP7 programme.

He told EURACTIV: "Our concern is that when under the new common strategic framework [which will be unveiled later this year] – the structural funds are rolled into the new framework, insufficient attention will be given to not-for-profit research for the benefit of the public sector, rather than for-profit industry; that not enough emphasis will be placed on health care and prevention of chronic diseases, rather than their treatment."

Call for action on pain

Another group meeting for a symposium in the European Parliament this week – the European Federation of the International Association for the Study of Pain – published a seven-point call for action on the institutions to raise the awareness of chronic pain across the continent.

It also included demands for pain research to be a priority of FP8, and the establishment of an EU platform for the exchange, comparison and benchmarking of best practices between member states on pain management.

Irish centre-right MEP Jim Higgins told the symposium that he intended to get the action plan adopted as a formal written declaration of the European Parliament.

Calling on EU member states to acknowledge obesity as a chronic disease, Jean-Paul Allonsius, the president of European Obesity Day, said: "This would require the creation of formal healthcare policies to address what is now an EU-wide epidemic."

Lamenting the fact that at present only one member state, Portugal, recognised obesity as a chronic disease, he added: "What we need now are for the 26 other member states to do the same."

"It is crucial to raise funding for public health research – both by the European Union and its member states – to gain the best benefits for citizens," according to Professor Mark McCarthy, public health co-ordinator for the European Public Health Association.

He said: "Our spending at present is distorted towards industry and pharmaceutical. We need research linked to public policy and with civil society organisations, to create new public health practice based on established scientific facts."

"Our concern is that when under the new common strategic framework [which will be unveiled later this year] the structural funds are rolled into the new framework, insufficient attention will be given to the not-for-profit research for the benefit of the public sector, rather than for-profit industry; that not enough attention will be placed on health care and prevention of chronic diseases, rather than their long-term treatment," McCarthy added.

"We will endeavour to get a written declaration reflecting the call to action endorsed by the European Parliament," said Irish centre-right MEP Jim Higgins in reference to European Federation of the International Association for the Study of Pain's call for action.

He added: "This will require effective lobbying by the group within the Parliament, but such written declarations are effective. This was shown recently when a declaration by the Parliament stimulated the Commission to drop legal action it was bringing against Denmark, because that country wanted to impose limits to chemicals added to foods."

Sedentary modern lifestyles and over-eating have raised obesity to the number one public health challenge of the 21st Century, with rapidly increasing childhood obesity of particular concern to Western nations.

The prevalence of obesity has more than trebled in many European countries since the 1980s. People consume more calories per day, in particular from fat, whereas their physical activity levels have gone down.

To tackle obesity, the European Commission set up an EU platform for action on diet, physical activity and health. Since March 2005, the platform has been bringing together industry, consumer groups and health experts to find ways to combat obesity.

Its emphasis is on self-regulation and voluntary commitments from stakeholders (food industry, health NGOs). In the World Health Organisation (WHO) European ministerial conference on counteracting obesity in November 2006, health ministers signed a European Charter pledging to place obesity high up on the European public health and political agendas and to halt the rise in obesity by 2015.

An EU White Paper on nutrition, overweight and obesity-related health issues, adopted in 2007, endorsed the existing voluntary approach to food marketing and advertising at EU level.

The European Commission is expected to table a list of permitted health claims by the end of 2011. Once the list is out, food manufacturers will have six months to take false claims off the market.

  • 21 May 2011: European Obesity Day. The organisation will renew calls for obesity to be recognised as a chronic illness.
  • 10 June 2011: Commission unveils preliminary ideas for new FP8 research funding programme.

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