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Global treaty needed to tackle obesity, researchers say

Obesity should be tackled using a global treaty that shuts “Big Food” out of policy decisions, medical researchers said on Sunday.

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In a report published in “The Lancet” medical journal, the Lancet Commission on Obesity – comprised of 26 researchers from 14 countries – said there had been inadequate political leadership when it came to addressing the obesity crisis.

The commission accused “Big Food” of intimidating politicians, as well as using their commercial influence and “privileged access to decision makers,” to prevent policies from being implemented.

To offset industry opposition, it called for a global treaty to be established to create effective policies for tackling obesity. The commission suggested following the example of the WHO’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, which explicitly excluded the tobacco industry from being involved in policy development.

Member states of such a treaty should “translate the principles and guidelines into national laws to protect their populations from practices that undermine healthy food environments,” the report said. It noted that measures such as warning labels on food and restricting advertising to children could help reduce obesity rates.

“Although food clearly differs from tobacco because it is necessary to support human life, unhealthy food and beverages are not,” said William Dietz, co-chair of the commission, in a press release on Sunday.

“The similarities with Big Tobacco lie in the damage they induce and the behaviours of the corporations that profit from them. A Framework Convention on Food Systems would help empower individual nations against vested commercial interests, redirect the vast subsidies that currently benefit unhealthy industries, and provide full transparency.”

According to the WHO, 13 percent of adults were obese in 2016, and more than 380 million children and adolescents were overweight or obese globally. Worldwide obesity has almost tripled since 1975, the organization says.

A spokesperson for the British Nutrition Foundation told CNBC via email that while a number of policies had been implemented in the U.K., it was important for stakeholders to continue working with governments to address obesity.

Meanwhile Luise Molling, campaigner at Foodwatch Germany, said in an email: “Germany and other countries believe that they can fight the obesity epidemic in cooperation with the food industry – but the food industry is not part of the solution, it is the core of the problem. We would welcome the treaty proposed by the experts, which will help countries combat obesity in regulatory terms and reduce the influence of the industry.”

However, the proposals were also met with condemnation.

Tim Rycroft, chief operating officer of the U.K.’s Food and Drink Federation, told CNBC via email it was “deeply irresponsible” to draw a comparison between tobacco and food.

“Only those with the most extreme of viewpoints could believe that denying our industry a seat at the policymaking table would help to improve diets and nutrition,” he said.

Christopher Snowdon, head of lifestyle economics at the Institute of Economic Affairs, said in a statement on Sunday that a treaty could damage the economy.

“If such authoritarian regulations come to pass, a thriving and competitive food market which responds to consumer demand will be replaced by a ‘state anchored approach’ in which bureaucrats and activists decide what the public is allowed to eat,” he said.