CSPI says US protecting food industry, not public health

The Bush Administration is pressuring the World Health Organization (WHO) to revise its public health recommendations for combating the growing obesity epidemic by emphasizing “personal responsibility” over government action. Of course, the whole point of the WHO initiative is to advise governments, not consumers, on anti-obesity policies. But the Administration, both at home and abroad, stresses personal responsibility to the virtual exclusion of strong governmental action on nutrition.

The WHO is recommending steps such as restricting junk-food advertising aimed at kids and using agricultural and pricing policies to encourage consumption of healthful foods and decrease consumption of less healthful foods. To be sure, not all of the WHO’s recommendations will be popular with agribusiness and food marketers. But, regrettably, the Administration is largely silent when it comes to many food-industry tactics that help fuel the obesity epidemic, even when those tactics are aimed squarely at children.

The formal U.S. government position is due to be submitted to the WHO within the next 10 days. We urge you to encourage the Administration to support the WHO’s draft report.


The WHO has developed a draft Global Strategy on Diet, Physical Activity, and Health. The document is open for comments by the United States and other governments until February 29. The Global Strategy makes numerous recommendations that could be taken to halt the growing global obesity epidemic. Recommendations include methods for altering consumer behavior, dietary patterns, and physical activity, as well as ways to address advertising, packaging, labeling, pricing, preparation methods, and other practices that affect nutrition and food consumption.

At a meeting of the WHO Executive Board last month, the Bush Administration urged that the draft Global Strategy be refocused to emphasize the role that individuals should play in improving their own diet. At best, the Administration’s position is simplistic and naive; at worst it is a politically inspired tactic to avoid encouraging industry and government make changes that would help reverse the current obesity crisis.

Obesity must be addressed on multiple levels—by government, food companies, health care providers, schools, as well as individuals. The food industry’s advertising and marketing budgets are far greater than the sums spent on nutrition education. McDonald’s, for example, spends about $1 billion a year on advertising and promotion of fast food while only about $4 million a year is spent on the “5 A Day” campaign promoting fruit and vegetable consumption. Chain restaurants push with impunity so-called “value meals” that are literally penny wise and “pound” foolish. The U.S. Department of Agriculture encourages high-fat diets by administering advertising and promotional programs for the beef, pork, and dairy industries. Schools facing budgetary shortfalls because of government cuts rely on profits from vending machines supplied by Coca-Cola and other companies. In such an environment, it is no wonder why we are getting fat. Government intervention is clearly needed to facilitate better diets and more healthful eating.

The United States government can no longer afford to ignore the role that industry practices and government policies play in the obesity epidemic. The U.S. leads the world in the percentage of overweight teens; almost 14 million children (24 percent of the population aged 2 to 17) are obese. Their condition puts them at greater risk for a variety of chronic illnesses. Sadly the rate of Type II diabetes has soared among American youth to such an extent that the condition is no longer referred to as adult onset diabetes.

The Bush Administration should stop talking about the problem and start throwing its weight behind comprehensive policy approaches. Supporting the WHO Global Strategy, without amendments favored by industry, would be a good start.

More on the WHO is here.

The WHO Global Strategy document is here.

CSPI’s report on food marketing aimed at kids is here.

Marion Nestle and Mike Jacobson’s Public Health Reports article is here.

More CSPI anti-obesity recommendations can be found here.