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Brussels, 8 December 2005

Questions and Answers on the EU approach to tackling obesity

Why has the Commission made tackling obesity a public health priority?

The number of EU citizens who are overweight or obese is increasing rapidly. Over the past decade, obesity levels having risen by between 10-40% across the EU, and in some Member States over a quarter of the adult population is now obese. Moreover, there is no sign of this trend slowing. Perhaps even more concerning is the growing rate of obesity in children. Across the EU-25, almost 1 in 4 children are overweight, and the figure is rising by around 400 000 a year. Obesity is one of the top causes of preventable premature deaths in the EU. It is a major risk factor for many chronic diseases such as hypertension, cardiovascular disease, certain cancers, strokes, respiratory diseases and type-2 diabetes. In fact, the rise in some of these illnesses, particularly diabetes, over recent years has been directly linked to the rise in obesity levels.

In addition to the toll obesity is taking on public health, it also poses a huge burden to the economy. The cost of obesity and related illnesses is estimated to take up 7% of national health budgets in the EU annually, and this figure is higher in some Member States. Recent studies on the US population showed that, at an individual level, the annual healthcare costs of an obese adult were 37% higher than those of a person of normal weight. The price of obesity becomes even higher when indirect costs such as reduced productivity, demands on insurance and social security, and social exclusion are taken into account. Tackling obesity is therefore an essential part of the work to meet the Lisbon Agenda objective of boosting EU competitiveness.

Why should the obesity problem be addressed at EU level?

Obesity is not a problem which respects borders and the most effective approach to dealing with it is complementary action at EU, national and local level. The EU Treaty (Article 152) states that a high level of human health protection should be ensured in all EU policies and activities, and reducing obesity levels is part of this aim to protect and improve citizens’ health. Member States called for EU-level action on the obesity problem on a number of occasions at Council level, recognising the need for a coordinated approach and the value in working together to send out consistent messages on healthier lifestyles. By working together, Member States can pool resources, share information and experiences, and develop working relations with pan-European stakeholders who can also contribute to the fight against obesity. The European Commission has an important role to play in coordinating Member States’ and stakeholders’ efforts, analysing and evaluating current policies in relevant areas, collecting comparable Europe-wide data on lifestyles and lifestyle-related diseases and advising on best practice.

What is the purpose of the Green Paper on promoting healthy diets and physical activity?

The Green Paper aims to launch a wide consultation, drawing input from Member States, industry, NGOs, health organisations and members of the public, with a view to gathering information for a European dimension to reducing obesity levels which could complement, support and coordinate existing national measures. It analyses the current situation with regard to obesity and the promotion of healthier lifestyles, and explains why and where action is needed. Participants in the consultation are then asked a series of questions on different obesity-related areas. By addressing the key issues in sub-headings (e.g. consumer information and communication; children and young people; socio-economic inequalities etc), the Green Paper should facilitate focussed answers to the questions posed while allowing the flexibility for new ideas to be put forward. The consultation will run until March 15 2006, and a report summarising the contributions will be published on the Commission’s website in the summer of 2006.

What has been done so far at EU-level to address the problem of obesity?

Nutrition, physical activity and obesity are key priorities in EU public health policy, and have been given much focus under the Public health action programme (2003-2008). Among the measures taken so far are:

  • Platform for action on Diet, Physical Activity and Health: In March 2005, the Commission launched a European Platform for action on Diet, Physical Activity and Health, through which EU-level representatives of the food and advertising industries, consumer organisations and health NGOs could work together to tackle the EU obesity problem. Members of the Platform have committed to devoting more time and resources to the development of concrete actions, aimed at encouraging EU citizens to lead healthier lifestyles with better diets and more physical activity. Part of the motivation for members to follow through on their commitments lies in the fact that they will assess and evaluate each other’s actions within the Platform. Five areas in which action should be taken in order to meet the Platform objectives have now been laid down: Consumer information and labelling; Education; Physical activity promotion; Marketing and advertising; Composition of foods (e.g. healthy options, portion sizes).
  • Network on Nutrition and Physical Activity: Set up by the Commission in 2003, the European on Network on Nutrition and Physical Activity brings together Member State experts to exchange views and information on public health, nutrition and physical activity. International observers such as the WHO, NGOs and industry are sometimes invited to take part in the Network’s bi-annual meetings. The role of the Network is to advise the Commission on the formulation of an EU strategy against obesity and to support policy-making in this area. Members of the Network share best practice experiences, examine the possibilities of common actions to promote physical activity and reduce diet-related diseases, and evaluate the best way to proceed in tackling the obesity problem.
  • Labelling: Clear and reliable food labelling is an essential part of helping EU consumers to choose healthier and more balanced diets. The Council and Parliament are currently in the process of agreeing new rules on the use of health and nutrition claims on food labels, based on proposals put forward by the Commission. This legislation aims to ensure that consumers are not misled by information on the food they buy and can rely on what they read on labels to guide them in their dietary choices. The Commission is reflecting on how best to revise the current legislation on nutrition labelling to make it better meet the needs of consumers.
  • Working with other policy areas: In order for the campaign against obesity to be truly effective, it needs to extend beyond the public health sector and be integrated into other relevant policy areas. To this end, discussions have already been held within the European Platform for action on Diet, Physical Activity and Health with Directorate General (DG) Education and Culture, DG Research, and DG Agriculture. One significant achievement was the agreement by all EU Sports Ministers in September 2005 to support the physical activity aspects of the Platform, and similar cooperation is foreseen with other policy sectors such as education.
  • Supporting obesity-related projects: Through the Public Health Action Programme (2003-08), the Commission has financed a number of projects related to obesity, its effects and how to address them. Among these is a major project, coordinated by the European Heart Network, aimed at fighting childhood obesity; the “Eurodiet” report which looked at the science and policy implications of nutrition and diet in the EU is also a Community-funded project.

What progress has been made by the Platform on Diet, Physical Activity and Health since it was launched?

As part of the EU Platform on Diet, Physical Activity and Health, all members had to agree to dedicate more resources to improving existing initiatives or launching new actions designed to reverse the current obesity trends in Europe. There have been 4 plenary sessions and 9 meetings of working groups since the launch of the Platform in March.

Members have now reported to the Commission on activities which they carried out in 2004 and 2005. These are summarised in detail in an online database, launched by the Commission in October and continually updated in line with new information received. For 2006, each Platform member has committed to further improve their efforts and increase the resources given to actions on improving diet and increasing levels of physical activity. These commitments will also appear on the database. The first evaluation of the Platform’s performance is scheduled for mid-2006, where it will be important to focus on identifying those actions that have been effective.

For the online database, see:

What are the next steps foreseen to promote better diets and physical activity in the EU?

Once the Green Paper consultation is completed, the Commission will analyse the responses. In the light of the results of the consultation process, the Commission will reflect upon the most appropriate follow-up, and will determine the measures that may need to be taken, as well as the instruments for their implementation.

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