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Markos Kyprianou

European Commissioner for Health and Consumer Protection

Tackling obesity and overweight – a transatlantic perspective

Closing speech to the EU - US Conference on Diet Physical Activity and Health
Brussels, 12 May 2006

I am glad to be here and to close this conference on action on diet, physical activity and health together with Deputy Secretary Azar, as co-organiser of this fruitful transatlantic exchange.

Obesity is in many ways a new challenge for us, and by these exchanges with our American partners I hope we can better understand the problem and find solutions. This is a common challenge that we are facing, the biggest health threat of the twenty first century, which requires common solutions.  These common solutions may have to be implemented in different ways, but through dialogue I believe we can find them as many of the players are the same on both sides of the Atlantic.

This conference has helped us give a new transatlantic perspective to our debate on nutrition and physical activity. And I hope that the examples of good practice presented in this conference will cross-fertilise the debates on how best to turn the trends on obesity and sedentary lifestyles in our countries.

We all know that unhealthy diets and physical inactivity are risk factors for many serious illnesses, including heart disease, hypertension, stroke, diabetes, respiratory disease, arthritis and certain types of cancer and we face the same alarming increasing trends of overweight and obesity among our citizens and particularly among our young people.

Its not just the impact on health. If we look at society as a whole, we see that the cost to our over-burdened health care systems and our economies in general, is just as unacceptable as the human suffering that goes along with the diseases that come in the wake of obesity.

Considering only the European Union, it is estimated that obesity accounts for up to 7% of direct health care costs and this will further increase given the rising obesity trends.

The wider costs to the economy – working days lost, early retirement - are even more worrying. In fact, it is estimated that the percentage of disability-adjusted life years lost due to obesity, poor nutrition and physical inactivity is even higher than that due to smoking.

This is a major public health concern for all our governments and as we face on both sides of the Atlantic the same alarming situation, I consider this conference as a first tangible step towards an exchange between policy makers, actors in industry and civil society to counter and reverse the current obesity trends.

As yesterday’s discussion made clear, there is not one single magic solution. Instead, there is a need for action at all levels. Obesity is a complex problem, with many causes, and it requires many and different actions to face it.

They are many actors who have a role to play. Not only public authorities, but also schools and teachers, economic operators, civil society and the broader health community, as well as families and consumers themselves, have a crucial role to play.

If we really want to have a tangible and sustained impact on lifestyles and behaviour of our citizens, we have to make use of a wide range of instruments and to encourage new partnerships.

The European Platform for Action on Diet, Physical Activity and Health which brings together the key EU-level representatives of the food, retail, catering, and advertising industries, consumer organisations and health NGOs is a first step to bring these different actors together.

This Platform begins to bear fruit – members have compiled current and ongoing activities aimed at promoting healthy diets and physical activity, and have tabled over 90 commitments for 2006. Now the challenge is for these commitments to be implemented. We need concrete results, not just a wish list.

It is too early to assess the impact of these initiatives but there are some very concrete commitments which I consider examples of good practice, others which need to be replicated in all Member States, and others which need to be made more concrete and operational.

As I already said to the Platform members earlier this year, there is still room for progress in a number of areas and a crucial need to put in place a real monitoring and evaluation framework for all the Platform initiatives. Unless we have proper monitoring, the Platform will lack credibility.

But, these initiatives show precisely the kind of all-inclusive approach we need if we are to succeed in our shared aim of halting and reversing current overweight and obesity trends.

I am looking forward to reviewing the progress again in six months time.

Our challenge is now to better link the work of the Platform and the broader strategy at EU level to actions at Member State level, and indeed, to activities within countries.

At EU level, the Platform is of course only one of the activities relevant to nutrition and physical activity at European level.

The challenge is to bring together existing policy and legislation and the range of other instruments – sharing information; making Recommendations; facilitating the exchange of experience and best practice; consensus building; networking; and the provision of financial support – together into a coherent strategy.

There is already a body of Community food law which is relevant to nutrition and will have impact on consumer’s ability to make informed choices.

One is the Nutrition and Health Claims proposal which was adopted in July 2003 and contains rules for use of claims on food. The proposal is in its second reading in Parliament. The main elements of the proposal are the requirement for nutrient profiling to be able to make a claim and the authorisation procedure for health claims. The Council, Parliament and Commission have reached agreement on compromise amendments and I hope that it will be possible for it to be adopted by the European Parliament next week.

Another piece of legislation I wish to mention is the Proposal for a Regulation on the addition of vitamins and minerals and of certain other substances to foods adopted in 2003. This regulation establishes a list of vitamins or minerals that may be added to food while providing specific rules on labelling. It will also include criteria for the establishment of maximum/minimum levels of vitamins and minerals in food. This proposal is now also in its second reading.

Finally, I wish to mention nutrition labelling. The current legislation is now 16 years old and the Commission is reflecting on which changes are required. The main issues discussed are whether we can prescribe certain forms of nutritional labelling and to what level of detail it should go. We need to provide accurate and readable information which is understandable for consumers.

It is consumers who will decide what to buy, what to eat and how much. The target is to enable consumers to make informed choices, based on information which is accurate, truthful and not misleading.

Last but not least, the Commission launched in December last year a major consultation exercise through a Green Paper on “healthy diets and physical activity”. It formulates a series of questions on key issues. More than 250 contributions are currently analysed by the Commission services and a report summarising contributions will be published in early summer.

This will help define elements of a comprehensive and coherent Community strategy which I expect to present early next year.

Overweight and obesity are rapidly reaching epidemic proportions on both sides of the Atlantic. 400,000 more children become obese every year in the EU, and obesity has doubled in the US in the last decade. Today’s discussion shows that we are pursuing serious strategies to tackle this problem. We all have a share of the blame, a share of responsibility, and we all have to be part of the solution.

The obesity time-bomb is a current, real threat, which threatens to undermine our societies. I hope that this exchange marks the beginning of a coalition of the willing to fight this threat.

Ladies and Gentlemen, I would like to finish by thanking again Secretary Azar and his collaborators at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services for having accepted to jointly organise this conference. Let me also thank all participants from both sides of the Atlantic for their valuable contributions during these two days. Transatlantic cooperation is a useful and inspiring complement to our nutrition and physical activity strategy and I am sure that this will not be a one off event but a starting point for fruitful cooperation.

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