March 4 marks World Obesity Day, an opportunity to advocate for public policies that address the prevention and control of this public health problem.
The prevalence of overweight and obesity among adults is 53.6% in Spain. Recent estimates indicate that 33.4% of children and adolescents are overweight. If tobacco is considered the main epidemic of the 20th century, the World Health Organization has classified obesity (covid-19 aside) as the “invisible pandemic of the 21st century”.
Both risk factors have a lot in common. For example, an industry that produces and distributes a wide range of unhealthy products, whether cigarettes or ultra-processed products, at very affordable prices. In the case of food, it is not a question of the entire industry, but of cases such as some business groups, behind products such as Iqos, but also Oreo cookies or Oscar Mayer sausages.
Advertising strategies are also similar. Campaigns are based on increasing the attractiveness and acceptance of these products and trying to delay any type of regulation. They also don’t forget to create confusion about the health effects of their products. Thus, many food marketing strategies resemble those designed to sell more and more cigarettes.
If History Repeats Itself, Let’s Learn From It
In 2005, Spain signed and ratified the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control. This included the Measures Plan which was presented under the acronym MPOWER: M for Monitoring Tobacco Consumption, P for protection (protection) against smoke, or to provide (offer) help to stop smoking, W to warn of damage and to enforce ad bans, and R to raise tobacco taxes. In this context, two laws were approved in our country, in 2005 and 2010, which allowed important advances in the protection of the population against tobacco.
Although the scientific community has been advocating for this type of policy for years, interventions continue to focus on individual responsibility. Thus, it is preferable to opt for ineffective measures, centered on nutritional education, or on voluntary self-regulatory agreements. In part, as with tobacco, because of corporate control over a few big players, from which no public health professional or researcher is exempt.
What is Suggested?
Experts call for intervention in five areas: 1) reducing advertising, 2) regulating supply, 3) reducing demand, 4) improving initial labeling and 5) rewriting agreements with the industry.
The objectives of advertising reduction are to reduce sales and social acceptance of products. As with e-cigarettes, most ultra-medication campaigns are aimed at children and adolescents. In our country, tobacco advertising and promotion are generally prohibited, with some exceptions at points of sale (such as tobacconists). The Royal Decree on the Regulation of Food and Drink Advertising Targeted to Minors, which was introduced in October 2021, has not yet entered into force. It seems that the Ministry of Agriculture is against it.
Access can also be regulated and thus reduced consumption. For example, banning the purchase of certain products by minors or limiting points of sale. In this sense, many countries have already banned vending machines inside schools. In Spain, the 2010 consensus document on feeding in educational centers is voluntary and has very little or no application. An example of the ineffectiveness of self-regulation advocated by Minister Planas.
One of the biggest milestones in tobacco control was declaring some places smoke-free. Likewise, the time has come to propose that educational and health centers be places where menus, pastries, or sugary drinks are displayed.
One of the most effective interventions to reduce tobacco consumption is to raise prices through taxes. These types of tax policies can also reduce the demand for unhealthy products. In Catalonia, despite industry resistance, a tax on sugary drinks has been created. Your last review showed that it works. On the contrary, there is no data showing a negative impact on the economy or the labor market.
Some of these measures were contemplated in the National Strategic Plan for the Reduction of Childhood Obesity, presented last June as a roadmap to be followed in our country until 2030. We hope that it does not remain a dead letter.
Nutrition with Science is a section on nutrition based on scientific evidence and knowledge contradicted by experts. Eating is much more than a pleasure and a necessity: food and eating habits are now a public health factor that can help us prevent many diseases, from different types of cancer to diabetes. A team of nutritionists and nutritionists will help us to better understand the importance of food and to destroy the myths that lead us to eat poorly, thanks to science.