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Health education not enough to solve obesity crisis

Improvements in health education will not be sufficient to tackle the obesity crisis in Europe, according to an influential University of Sussex report.

The two-year study, which involved collecting the views of key stakeholders in nine EU countries that all show rising obesity, calls for a package of measures to deal with the issue. These include better provision of facilities for physical activity in schools and communities, radical changes to transport and planning policies, improved food labelling and tighter restrictions on advertising junk foods.

"Just telling people how to be more healthy will not solve the growing problem of obesity in the UK," said project leader Professor Erik Millstone. "The UK and other European governments need to take several steps to make it much easier for citizens to have healthier diets and lifestyles. A coherent set of government policies is needed, or the problem will only get worse."

More than 200 leading representatives of farmers, retailers, consumer groups and health and fitness organisations and policy-makers across the UK and eight other European countries were interviewed, probing their views on options for dealing with the rapid increase of obesity in their populations.

Professor Millstone, a reader in science policy, said: "Our findings show that there is a broad consensus that the trend in obesity is unsustainable and that urgent action should be taken to reverse that trend. The UK Government, along with the European authorities, have an essential part to play. There is a clear need not just for improved food and health education but also for improved food labelling and tight controls on the advertising and marketing of 'obesogenic' (ie 'junk') foods, particularly to children."

The study, entitled PorGrow, showed that improved and compulsory food and drink labelling was seen as essential, even by representatives of the food industry. The under-use of school and college gymnasia, swimming pools and sports facilities after the end of the school day and during school holidays was seen as wasteful.

The most controversial measure recommended is a restriction on the marketing and advertising of certain categories of food and drink, especially to children and young people. "While advertising industry representatives were amongst those least enthusiastic for that option, a large majority of other stakeholder groups, including some companies in the food chain, favoured tighter controls and a comprehensive ban on the advertising and marketing of unhealthy foods and drinks, especially to children and young people," said Professor Millstone.

Almost all stakeholders agreed that four policy options would be poorly accepted and unlikely to be effective. These were: taxes on junk foods and/or subsidies on relatively healthy foods, the increased use of synthetic sweeteners or fat substitutes, the use of physical activity monitoring devices such as pedometers, and the use of medication for weight control.

Speaking at the launch of the report, MP David Lepper, said: "It is vital that the upward trend in obesity in the UK is reversed, and the policy recommendations from this project provide an excellent basis for action by the UK Government and by the EU. The findings of this project show that a single 'magic bullet' will not solve the problem and that a set of coherent measures will be necessary. The costs of not solving the obesity problem will hugely exceed the costs of solving it."

Dr Tim Lobstein, of the International Obesity TaskForce, said: "Stakeholder views are an essential component of policy-making, along with scientific evidence and expert opinion. When all three coincide - as they do here - then there is no room left for doubt. Every year at least 20,000 more children and 200,000 more adults in the UK will become obese. Now is the time for government action."

Jessica Mangold | alfa
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