A 43-member expert commission appointed by the journal The Lancet takes a three-year look at climbing global obesity and undernutrition rates and attempts to propose solutions to this growing world-wide crisis. The commission’s report, published on Sunday, is a long read — 47 single-spaced pages. The full text is available to all for free if you sign in to The Lancet’s site at the link, below.
The report title begs the question: What is a syndemic? Think “synergistic epidemics,” or epidemics that occur at the same time and feed off of one another to make the problem worse. The commission was originally charged with looking at obesity alone, but expanded the scope of its report to include the connected problems of obesity, undernutrition and climate change, a daunting and interconnected trio.
To tackle these problems, the commission applied a systems approach and concluded with nine key recommendations. Many of them are focused on conceptual or even vague ideas like “strengthening municipal government levers.” It is almost as if the topic is so big that the recommendations become jargon-filled, indeterminate pronouncements. But where the authors seem to get more specific is when they point to the food and beverage industries as part of the problem. One recommendation reads:
Reduce the influence of large commercial interests in the public policy development process to enable governments to implement policies in the public interest to improve the health of current and future generations, the environment, and the planet.
Translation? The food industry has too much influence over global public-health policies and it needs to be excluded when policymakers are deciding what is best for population health. The media has zeroed in on this recommendation when covering the report:
The public record suggests that the food industry’s modus operandi in this realm is indeed terrible. Just one example is the mischief of Coca-Cola and others in China, ensuring that the “exercise more” message is amplified while giving junk food a pass in public health messaging, as we reported just a couple of weeks ago. For more background on the damage done by packaged goods companies in many developing nations, read the feature piece in The New York Times entitled “How big business got Brazil hooked on junk food,” which indicts Nestle and is truly cringeworthy.
So this particular recommendation resonates with us as helpful. Although we need food, and we need food companies, the food sector’s rush to maximize profits by oversupplying the globe with products made from cheap, heavily refined ingredients (sugar, flour and vegetable oils) is indeed part of the problem. Anything we can do to minimize corporate influence in public health policymaking would be a step in the right direction.