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Brussels, 30 May 2007

White Paper on Nutrition: Commission proposes EU-wide efforts to tackle the obesity epidemic

The European Commission today adopted a White Paper setting out a wide range of proposals on how the EU can tackle nutrition, overweight and obesity related health issues. The White Paper stresses the importance of enabling consumers to make informed choices, ensuring that healthy options are available, and calls upon the food industry to work on reformulating recipes, in particular to reduce levels of salt and fats. Stressing the benefit of physical activity and encouraging Europeans to exercise more is another area to develop. The need for EU action in the area of nutrition and physical activity stems from the fact that poor diets and low levels of physical activity in Europe account for six of the seven leading risk factors for ill health in Europe. The prevalence of overweight and obesity has increased sharply during the last two decades. In the majority of Member States more than 50% of the adult population is overweight or obese. Furthermore, it is estimated that 21,748,312 million children are overweight in the EU with this figure growing by 400,000 each year.

EU Health Commissioner Markos Kyprianou said: "The rise of obesity makes improving the diets and physical activity levels of Europeans a top public health priority for the EU in the years ahead. If we don't act, today's overweight children will be tomorrow's heart attack victims. What consumers eat is up to them, but they should be able to make informed choices, and have a range of healthy options to choose from. That is why the Commission is reviewing the options for nutrition labelling, and calling on industry to advertise responsibly and reduce levels of salt, fats and sugar in food products."

Stronger partnerships

The White Paper calls for more action orientated partnerships across the EU involving inter alia private actors and public health and consumer organisations. This builds on existing mechanisms such as the EU Platform for Action on Diet, Physical Activity and Health and calls on the range of stakeholders across the EU to work together to establish fora at national and local level within Member States. It aims to strengthen links with Member States, the World Health Organization (WHO) and other important stakeholders. To ensure high level political support, and cross sectoral co-operation within Member States, the White Paper proposes the creation of a new High Level Group focused on nutrition, overweight and obesity related health issues, comprising a representative from every Member State.

The Commission also calls for stronger action on the part of private actors across the EU in a number of areas. These include:

  • The development of stronger advertising codes in the EU that build on existing European Advertising Standards Alliance (EASA) codes to include the results emerging from the Commission's 2006 Advertising Roundtable
  • Greater efforts by the food and retailing industry to reformulate foods
  • Sport organisations to develop advertising and marketing campaigns to encourage physical activity and focusing on target groups such as children

Commission action

The White Paper clarifies the range of Commission policies that can be marshalled towards these objectives, such as health and food safety policies, regional policy in the form of structural funds, transport and urban policies, sport policy and research programmes. Areas where the Commission proposes new actions include a revision of nutrition labelling, programmes to promote the consumption of fruit and vegetables, a White Paper on Sport and a study to explore the potential of food reformulation to improved diet.

The Commission will monitor the progress and performance of all actors with a first report due in 2010 and will collaborate with the World Health Organization to improve surveillance of nutrition and physical activity actions and health status in the EU. The White Paper is supported by an Impact Assessment.

Impact on health

The prevalence of obesity has more than trebled in many European countries since the 1980s, according to WHO. Data suggest that people consumed around 300 calories more per day in 1999 than in 1970, and that a higher proportion of energy consumed came from fat. On the physical activity side, studies show that one in three Europeans do not exercise at all in their free time, while the average European spends over five hours a day sitting down.

Child obesity is of particular concern. An estimated three million European schoolchildren are now obese, and some 85,000 more children become obese each year. Young people tend to retain excess weight throughout their adult lives and are more likely to become obese.

Obesity is a risk factor for many serious illnesses including heart disease, type-2 diabetes, hypertension, stroke, and certain types of cancer. Poor nutrition and insufficient exercise are among the leading causes of avoidable death in Europe, and obesity related illnesses are estimated to account for as much as 7% of total healthcare costs in the EU.
The White Paper on Nutrition and Physical Activity can be found at:
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