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We must tackle the growing burden of obesity

18 May 2017
by Guest author

Francesca Colombo, Head, Health Division, OECD Directorate for Employment, Labour and Social Affairs

In 2010, the OECD’s influential report, Fit not Fat:Obesity and the Economics of Prevention, warned about the rapidly rising challenge of obesity and its consequences for our health.

Nearly a decade later, the situation has unfortunately not improved enough. Our new data released today (http://www.oecd.org/health/obesity-update.htm) show that the obesity epidemic has spread further, even though this has happened at a slower pace than before. Today, over half of all adults and nearly one in six children are overweight or obese in the OECD area. In the United States and Mexico, one every three adults is obese (see our chart). Social disparities persist and have increased in some countries. Less-educated women are two to three times more likely to be overweight than those with a higher level of education.

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Obesity rates have grown rapidly in England, Mexico and the United States since the 1990s. The outlook for the future is worrying, as new projections show a continuing increase of obesity, if no significant change occurs. Obesity rates are projected to increase at a faster pace in Korea and Switzerland where rates have been historically low.

There are many reasons why we must tackle obesity. Obesity is a key risk factor for numerous chronic disease, such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease. The failure of health systems to tackle obesity leads to millions of deaths and disability. This also damages our economies. Obese people are less likely to be employed than normal-weight people. They are less productive at work due to more sick days and fewer worked hours, and they earn about 10% less than non-obese people (OECD/EU (2016), Health at a Glance: Europe 2016 – State of Health in the EU Cycle, OECD Publishing, Paris. http://dx.doi.org/10.1787/9789264265592-en.)

The good news is that much of this is preventable, as OECD work shows. Comprehensive policy packages, including school-based and worksite interventions, interventions in primary care settings, and broader regulatory and fiscal policies can address obesity effectively. A number of countries have recently implemented policies, ranging from tax measures (e.g. Belgium, Chile, Finland, France, Hungary, and Mexico) and subsidies to encourage active commuting instead of cars (e.g., Canada and France both at subnational level), to prescription of physical activity (e.g., France, Sweden), reformulation of food products (e.g., Canada, Chile, Korea, UK, Industry on its own) and change in portion sizes (e.g., France, Sweden, Turkey, UK, New York City ).

In the past few years, new policies to fight obesity have emerged, including communication. Improving nutrient information displayed on food labels through easy-to-understand symbol that is placed in front of pre-packaged food products can help consumers make healthier food choices. These symbols exist in Australia, Chile, Denmark, England, France, Iceland, Korea, Lithuania, New Zealand, Norway, and Sweden. Health promotion campaigns have also been spread through social media. Examples of health-promotion-dedicated website, mobile apps and online tools to help people change their behaviours can be seen in Chile, Estonia, England and the Netherlands. Some countries have reinforced the regulation of marketing of potentially unhealthy foods and sweetened beverages directed at children and young adults. Chile, Iceland, Ireland, and Mexico, for example, ban advertising of foods and beverages on television and radio during peak children audience hours. Other bans apply in schools (e.g., Chile, Spain, Turkey and Poland), in public transport (e.g., Australia) and in theatres (e.g. Norway). While the impact of these polices has not been fully evaluated yet, early evidence shows they empower people to make healthier choices, and can also affect food manufacturers’ behaviours.

These are just some examples. Most OECD countries are now using simultaneously complementary policy tools and creating synergies to promote healthier lifestyles. But there is no room for complacency. OECD countries on average still allocate only around 3% of their health budgets to public health and prevention. Addressing obesity requires investment, and comprehensive policies that target broad social and environmental determinants. Crucially, it requires strong leadership and political will.

 

Further reading

OECD Obesity Update 2017

Sassi, Franco (2010) “Fighting down obesity” OECD Observer No 281, October http://oecdobserver.org/news/fullstory.php/aid/3339/Fighting_down_obesity_.html

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