Davos divided on tackling the scourge of obesity

Updated: 2013-01-24 19:46


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Davos divided on tackling the scourge of obesity

Shao Qian (R) and an unidentified reporter pose for a picture after Shao wins the Fat and Happy contest in Xi'an, Shaanxi province, Aug 10, 2012. Shao, 21, weighs 182 kilograms. The contest, organized by a local newspaper, aims at encouraging the overweighed to better engage in public activities. [Photo by Li Jie/Asianewsphoto]

DAVOS - Obesity, a major factor in diabetes and heart disease, imposes costs on both public and private sectors and is a drag on economic growth, but business leaders meeting in Davos can't agree on what they can or should do to address it.

The World Economic Forum has some notable past achievements in healthcare, such as galvanising support for the fight against AIDS and the vaccination of children in poor countries, but tackling the rise in obesity promises to be a much more complicated task.

"There are huge interests involved. The question is how can we align interests? Industry sees the impact on their bottom line. They need a healthy workforce and healthy consumers," said WEF health and healthcare expert Olivier Raynaud.

The WEF estimates a cumulative $47 trillion of output might be lost in the next 20 years due to non-communicable diseases and mental health problems, with obesity to blame for 44 percent of the diabetes burden and 23 percent of heart disease costs.

One look at the list of the strategic partners of the WEF shows how many vested interests are at play - food and drink companies are blamed for feeding the crisis, while drug manufacturers profit from soaring rates of diabetes.

There are also issues of consumer choice to take into account, and the fact that companies selling calorie-dense foods often also make a range of healthier alternatives.

"We could stop selling ice cream, but people are still going to want to eat ice cream," said Paul Bulcke, chief executive of food giant Nestle, which has been investing heavily in developing healthier products, including low-fat ice cream.

Just this week, Coca-Cola, whose chief executive Muhtar Kent is one of the co-chairs of this year's Davos gathering, launched a commercial on U.S. cable television that seeks to highlight the company's efforts in fighting obesity.

As the soft drink industry faces the threat of tighter regulation, the commercial notes that Coca-Cola sells about 180 low and no-calorie drinks and reminds viewers "if you eat and drink more calories than you burn off, you'll gain weight".

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