The World Health Organisation’s Commission on Ending Childhood Obesity, appointed by WHO Director-General Dr Margaret Chan in 2014, has now formally presented its final report.
The Commission was co-chaired by Sir Peter Gluckman, the Chief Science Advisor to the Prime Minister of New Zealand, and Dr Sania Nishtar, the founder and President of Heartfile, a health policy think tank based in Pakistan.
The Commission held hearings in all 6 WHO regions, and was supported by two technical working groups: the Ad Hoc WG on Science and Evidence, and the Ad Hoc WG on Implementation, Monitoring and Accountability.
In 2014, an estimated 41 million children under 5 years of age were either overweight or obese (this is defined as the proportion of children whose weight for height scores are more than 2 standard deviations, or more than 3 standard deviations, respectively, from the WHO growth standard median).
The Commission’s strategic approach rests on three categories of interventions:
- interventions to tackle the obesogenic environment in order to improve the healthy eating and physical activity behaviours of children;
- interventions targeting critical stages of the lifecourse; ie (i) preconception and pregnancy; (ii) infancy and early childhood; and (iii) older childhood and adolescence;
- interventions to treat obese children in order to improve their current and future health.
A number of the Commission’s recommendations addressing the obesogenic environment, and critical stages of the lifecourse, in particular, confirm the role for law and regulation in improving the food and physical activity environment for children.
In a move sure to thrill the fizzy drinks industry, the Commission has called on countries to implement an effective tax on sugar-sweetened beverages, and noted that some countries may also consider a tax on foods high in fats or sugar.
Noting “unequivocal evidence that the marketing of unhealthy foods and sugar-sweetened beverages is related to childhood obesity”, the Commission has called on countries to implement the WHO’s Set of Recommendations on the Marketing of Foods and Non-alcoholic Beverages to Children. It has also called for cooperation between Member States of the World Health Assembly to reduce the impact of cross-border marketing of unhealthy foods and beverages.
The Commission has called for a standardised global nutrient labelling system, as well as the implementation of interpretive front-of-pack nutritional labelling supported by public education to improve nutritional literacy. Interpretive food labelling has consistently been a highly contested area of food law and policy. For example, the European Food Industry reportedly spent 1 billion euro to ensure that front-of-pack traffic light labeling did not become a Europe-wide standard. Traffic light labels interpret the quality of the nutrition of food by means of highly visible red, amber and green symbols that correspond to the amount of saturated fat, salt and added sugar in the product.
The Commission’s recommendation that schools, child-care settings and children’s sports facilities should be required to create healthy food environments may also require legislation or regulations for successful implementation in some countries. The Commission has also specifically recommended that countries eliminate the sale or provision of unhealthy foods, such as sugar-sweetened beverages and energy-dense, nutrient-poor foods, in schools.
In the United States, the federal government subsidises the provision of breakfasts and lunches served at school to children from low-income families. This has enabled the US Department of Agriculture to issue regulations requiring schools that participate in the national school lunch and breakfast program to improve the nutritional quality of the foods that are served. However, these standards have faced relentless opposition from the junk food industry and from Congress. Mandatory standards to improve the nutritional quality of school food have been introduced in a number of jurisdictions, including England and Scotland.
Other recommendations that may require legislative or executive action include the enforcement of the International Code of Marketing of Breast-milk Substitutes and subsequent resolutions of the World Health Assembly (WHA).
The Commission’s report will be presented to the members of the WHA in May 2016, where further actions may be taken to support the implementation of the Commission’s recommendations.
Those with an interest in obesity should also keep an eye out for the report of the Lancet Commission on Obesity, co-chaired by Professor Boyd Swinburn (University of Auckland), and Professor Bill Dietz (George Washington University). In this paper, Professors Swinburn and Dietz outline the work of their Commission.