Wednesday

26th Sep 2018

Interview

Cost of obesity outweighs war and terrorism

  • Dobbs and his team calculated that the global economic cost of obesity is roughly €1.8 trillion – equivalent to the GDP of Italy or Russia. (Photo: CGP Grey)

Efforts to tackle rising levels of obesity in Europe remain very small in comparison to the “massive economic burden” it is placing on health services, with governments side-tracked by single interventions like sugar taxes.

“There’s a real gap in political leadership … and I don’t think [politicians and policymakers] are as worried about [obesity] as they should be,” said Richard Dobbs, a senior partner at McKinsey, a global consultancy firm.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Support quality EU news

Get instant access to all articles — and 18 year's of archives. 30 days free trial.

... or join as a group

Dobbs was the lead author of his firm’s seminal report in 2014, which listed obesity as one of the top three social burdens generated by human beings.

He and his team calculated that the global economic impact of obesity is roughly $2 trillion (€1.8 trillion), equivalent to the GDP of Italy or Russia.

“Obesity today has the same impact on the global economy as armed violence, war and terrorism, and only a shade less than smoking,” they wrote at the time.

“And the problem – which is preventable – is rapidly getting worse.”

Almost three years on, and speaking to EUobserver in an interview to mark European Obesity Day this Saturday (20 May), Dobbs said very little has changed.

“We’re still spending a disproportionate amount of effort across the European Union on something that is a massive economic problem,” he explained.

Indeed, an investigation by EUobserver last December revealed member states' "haphazard approach" to tackling obesity, with countries spending nothing at all in Cyprus to more than €5 million in Germany, to fight the epidemic.

Strained healthcare

And yet healthcare systems are straining under the weight of people’s expanding waistlines.

Research by the United European Gastroenterology, an umbrella organisation for European societies concerned with digestive health, last year highlighted the cost of treating disorders related to obesity.

They say that the sum now amounts to a tenth of total healthcare costs in Europe, and “threatens the sustainability of public healthcare systems across Europe”.

The cost of obesity is five times that of air pollution, Dobbs explained, but “we just haven’t geared up”.

Dobbs said a big part of the problem is that governments have been distracted by policies like taxes on sugar-sweetened drinks, which has meant that they’ve lost sight of the bigger picture.

“You can’t just pull one or two policy levers, you need to pull 50,” he said, adding: “but that’s much harder than saying ‘I’m going to introduce a sugar tax’.”

However, that piecemeal approach simply isn’t working.

New figures published by the World Health Organisation (WHO) this week showed that the number of obese adolescents in Europe is continuing to rise.

One in three is overweight or obese, the authors said, and a major concern is that rates are also increasing in regions where they have historically been low, like in eastern European countries.

Dobbs’ report: Overcoming obesity: an initial economic analysis, assessed the impact and cost of 44 interventions, from product reformulation and portion control to media restrictions and reducing availability of high-calorie foods. They found that almost all of them were “highly cost-effective from the viewpoint of society”.

Big Britain

What’s more, in an analysis conducted on the UK specifically, the analysts discovered that deploying all 44 interventions would not only reverse rising levels of obesity, but would also return one in five overweight or obese Brits (8.5 million people) to a ‘normal weight’.

A new strategy to tackle childhood obesity was delayed for months whilst the former Conservative prime minister, David Cameron, grappled with a package of policies that included restrictions on advertising junk food and rules to force restaurants, cafes and takeaways to put calorie counts on menus.

These were distinctly un-conservative approaches, but sources close to Cameron said he “got comfortable” with the idea that it was time to intervene with a progressive package of policies.

But then the UK voted to leave the EU and Cameron resigned. Theresa May, his successor as prime minister, published the strategy, but it had been severely watered down and was roundly criticised as a result.

Dobbs said other countries have got close to producing credible strategies to tackle obesity, but many back away when it comes to the crunch.

“There’s a real gap in political leadership … you can’t bury this with the health ministers,” he added, noting that: “Politicians need to get comfortable with intervening and also with pulling multiple levers.”

The EU's health commissioner, Vytenis Andriukaitis, made similar remarks at a conference in Malta recently.

“We need support at the highest level [in order to tackle childhood obesity],” said Andriukaitis, while he highlighted the “very positive” attitude the European Commission has had towards taxation in areas like sugar, alcohol and tobacco.

Vague goals

But strong words and strict policies are more often than not replaced by vague goals and voluntary agreements led by industry.

The recent proposals relating to junk food advertising targeted at children within the Audio Visual Media Services Directive are a case in point.

Just last week, new research published by the European Policy Information Centre – a coalition of free-market think tanks – actually showed how little “nanny state” regulation there is on food, compared to tobacco and alcohol.

But does Dobbs feel there’s a need for more regulation?

Businesses want a level playing field and if there isn’t one they’re more reluctant to budge, he suggested.

“That’s where regulation can help. Talk to McDonald’s and they’re happy to do their bit … but they want that level playing field so the chip shops are [taking action] too.”

Letter

Childhood obesity: Time to put words into action

MEPs from all parties have repeatedly voiced their concerns about the rising levels of childhood overweight and obesity. Yet, when the opportunity arises to put declarations into action, the response falls short.

Feature

Civil society steps in to fight rising obesity

By 2030, it is estimated that more than 50 percent of Europeans will be obese. With a lack of public policies and coherent strategies, civil society is often the one trying to find a solution.

Interview

Malta's fight against childhood obesity

Despite ambitious plans and a top political priority to fight childhood obesity, Malta has only managed to halt the rise of obese and overweight children.

Letter

An open letter to ministers on the audiovisual directive

The ongoing revision of the Audiovisual Media Services Directive is a key opportunity to reduce exposure of Europe's children to advertisements of health-harmful products – an opportunity that should not be missed.

News in Brief

  1. No UK election before Brexit, says May
  2. Former French PM wants to be mayor of Barcelona
  3. Merkel's wingman in surprise defeat in internal party vote
  4. Orban sends thank-you letters to supportive MEPs
  5. UN chief: World suffering from 'trust deficit disorder'
  6. Stalemate in Sweden as parliament ousts prime minister
  7. Migrant rescue ship heading to French port
  8. EU angry at British tabloids on Brexit

Supported by

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. NORDIC COUNCIL OF MINISTERSThe vital bioeconomy. New issue of “Sustainable Growth the Nordic Way” out now
  2. NORDIC COUNCIL OF MINISTERSThe Nordic gender effect goes international
  3. NORDIC COUNCIL OF MINISTERSPaula Lehtomaki from Finland elected as the Council's first female Secretary General
  4. NORDIC COUNCIL OF MINISTERSNordic design sets the stage at COP24, running a competition for sustainable chairs.
  5. Counter BalanceIn Kenya, a motorway funded by the European Investment Bank runs over roadside dwellers
  6. ACCACompany Law Package: Making the Best of Digital and Cross Border Mobility,
  7. IPHRCivil Society Worried About Shortcomings in EU-Kyrgyzstan Human Rights Dialogue
  8. UNESDAThe European Soft Drinks Industry Supports over 1.7 Million Jobs
  9. Mission of China to the EUJointly Building Belt and Road Initiative Leads to a Better Future for All
  10. IPHRCivil society asks PACE to appoint Rapporteur to probe issue of political prisoners in Azerbaijan
  11. ACCASocial Mobility – How Can We Increase Opportunities Through Training and Education?
  12. Nordic Council of MinistersEnergy Solutions for a Greener Tomorrow

Latest News

  1. World upside down as EU and Russia unite against US
  2. EU court delivers transparency blow on MEP expenses
  3. Russian with Malta passport in money-laundering probe
  4. Cyprus: Russia's EU weak link?
  5. Missing signature gaffe for Azerbaijan gas pipeline
  6. Every major city in Europe is getting warmer
  7. No chance of meeting EU renewable goals if infrastructure neglected
  8. Brexit and MEPs expenses in the spotlight This WEEK

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. UNICEFWhat Kind of Europe Do Children Want? Unicef & Eurochild Launch Survey on the Europe Kids Want
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic Countries Take a Stand for Climate-Smart Energy Solutions
  3. Mission of China to the EUChina: Work Together for a Better Globalisation
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersNordics Could Be First Carbon-Negative Region in World
  5. European Federation of Allergy and AirwaysLife Is Possible for Patients with Severe Asthma
  6. PKEE - Polish Energy AssociationCommon-Sense Approach Needed for EU Energy Reform
  7. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic Region to Lead in Developing and Rolling Out 5G Network
  8. Mission of China to the EUChina-EU Economic and Trade Relations Enjoy a Bright Future
  9. ACCAEmpowering Businesses to Engage with Sustainable Finance and the SDGs
  10. Nordic Council of MinistersCooperation in Nordic Electricity Market Considered World Class Model
  11. FIFAGreen Stadiums at the 2018 Fifa World Cup
  12. Mission of China to the EUChina and EU Work Together to Promote Sustainable Development

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Counter BalanceEuropean Ombudsman Requests More Lending Transparency from European Investment Bank
  2. FIFARecycling at the FIFA World Cup in Russia
  3. Nordic Council of MinistersOECD Report: Gender Equality Boosts GDP Growth in Nordic Region
  4. Centre Maurits Coppieters“Peace and Reconciliation Is a Process That Takes Decades” Dr. Anthony Soares on #Brexit and Northern Ireland
  5. Mission of China to the EUMEPs Positive on China’s New Measures of Opening Up
  6. Macedonian Human Rights MovementOld White Men are Destroying Macedonia by Romanticizing Greece
  7. Counter BalanceControversial EIB-Backed Project Under Fire at European Parliament
  8. Nordic Council of MinistersIncome Inequality Increasing in Nordic Countries
  9. European Jewish CongressEU Leaders to Cease Contact with Mahmoud Abbas Until He Apologizes for Antisemitic Comments
  10. International Partnership for Human RightsAnnual Report celebrates organization’s tenth anniversary
  11. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic Cooperation Needed on Green Exports and Funding
  12. Mission of China to the EUPremier Li Confirms China Will Continue to Open Up

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us