Obesity may overtake smoking as top preventable killer

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We are eating ourselves to death, scientists said yesterday. British waistlines are expanding so fast that three quarters of the population could suffer the ill-effects of excess weight within 10 to 15 years, and obesity could overtake smoking as Britain's single biggest preventable killer.

We are eating ourselves to death, scientists said yesterday. British waistlines are expanding so fast that three quarters of the population could suffer the ill-effects of excess weight within 10 to 15 years, and obesity could overtake smoking as Britain's single biggest preventable killer.

Yesterday, experts attending a European summit on obesity in Copenhagen sounded the alarm on the "silent epidemic" and accused governments of being cowardly in the face of the huge vested interests of the food and transport industries.

It was the second warning in days on the dangers posed by the seductive marketing of foods dense in calories to consumers whose sedentary lives mean they have less need of them than their forebears had. On Monday, Andrew Prentice, professor of international nutrition at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, told the British Association Festival of Science that as obesity took hold among the young, fat children could pre-decease their parents.

Already the first cases of type 2 diabetes, until recently regarded as a weight-related disease of old age, have been diagnosed in children in Britain, Poland, Sweden and the United States. Excess body weight is now the commonest childhood disorder in Europe, according to the International Obesity Taskforce.

Professor Philip James, chairman of the taskforce and a former government adviser on food policy, said yesterday that not enough was being done to tackle the problem. He said excess body weight had been wrongly attributed to genetic factors when the true cause was the "toxic environment" – restricting mobility in car-choked cities and encouraging high energy intake with fast foods.

"Officials are pretty terrified around the whole of Europe about how to confront some of these huge vested interests. The fast food and soft drink industries have enormous turnovers; there are enormous vested interests which we need to confront. If we don't, the epidemic of childhood obesity is going to rip through Europe so fast – with Britain being in the worst category."

If action wasn't taken, Britain could have clinics of diabetic teenagers facing the prospect of blindness by the time they reached their thirties. "And the kidney units should be re-gearing because they are going to need enormous numbers of kidney transplants and dialysis," he said.

In the UK obesity among adults, defined as a body mass index (BMI) of more than 30, has grown three-fold from 6 per cent of men and 8 per cent of women in 1980 to more than 21 per cent of men and women today. A further 44 per cent of men and 41 per cent of women are overweight (with a BMI of 25 to 30).

Professor James called for curbs on the advertising of food to children and urged the government to follow the example of Finland, where there are regulations over the types of food children can bring to school. Finland has trebled consumption of vegetables among the population in 20 years – the biggest gain achieved from health promotion efforts, according to the International Obesity Taskforce.

In its report, "Obesity in Europe: the case for action", the taskforce calls for a European Union ban, similar to the ban on tobacco advertising, to prevent inappropriate foods and drinks being aimed at children via television advertising and vending machines in schools.

It says the increase in obesity in the past 20 years cannot be explained by genetic factors – although these have a powerful influence in determining which families are affected – because it has been sudden and the effects have been felt worldwide. "It is no longer acceptable to blame the individual for their obesity. The causes are clearly societal," it says.

Dr Roger Boyle, the Government's heart disease tsar, denied yesterday that the Government was doing too little to deal with the threat. He said it had many initiatives, including the promotion of breast feeding to encouraging healthy eating and exercise. "The important thing is to make sure there is full awareness of the problem, and to make sure that where there are choices for healthy living that they are easy choices and the public are encouraged to take them."

A spokesman for the Food and Drink Federation said the industry had produced low fat products and smaller portions. "I don't think the industry can do better than provide the widest possible range of products but also play its part in helping people to understand about food and nutrition."

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