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Markos Kyprianou

European Commissioner for Health and Consumer Protection

Opening address: tackling obesity in Europe

WHO Conference on Obesity
Istanbul, 15 November 2006

It is my very great pleasure to speak here today at the start of this important conference.

I thank the WHO for the opportunity to speak for the Commission, and I praise their success in putting this event together.

The conference, and in particular the European Charter on Counteracting Obesity, is an important and timely boost for action in the European Region.

As European Commissioner for Public Health, I speak particularly for the 25 Member States of the European Union. These countries have some of the highest obesity rates in the WHO European Region, particularly among men, with alarming rates also among children.

For this reason, the European Commission has made obesity and overweight a priority issue in its public health policy. Next year, we plan to adopt a White Paper on Nutrition and Physical Activity that will bring together our plans and proposals for Community action.

The timing of the international initiatives on obesity is therefore particularly fortuitous. I believe that the European Charter will provide inspiration for Community actions.

I will talk more about the White Paper, in just a moment. But firstly I wish to make clear that I am particularly concerned about the impact that obesity is having, and will have on our societies – particularly on young people.

There are of course the health impacts, such as the rising prevalence of conditions such as diabetes, of cardiovascular disease, of various cancers.

This gives enormous additional and unnecessary burdens placed on our social security systems, leaving fewer resources to cope with other conditions.

Furthermore there will be long term ramifications for our productivity and economic health. This is something that we in the EU have recognised when we made Healthy Life Years one of the key indicators for our performance towards the Lisbon economic goals.

In my view, the rising prevalence of obesity is simply the most tangible, most visible sign that there is something wrong with our diets, and our lifestyle in general.

Our goal should therefore be to improve population nutrition, and levels of physical activity across the board.

Of course this is easy to say: the question is how?

Unfortunately, science indicates that there will be no quick fixes here. After all, what we are seeking to do is nothing short of behaviour change across the entire population.

From my perspective, what comes across is the need to introduce changes throughout society: across different sectors such as education, transport, agriculture and health, and at different levels from the local to the national picture.

It is clear no one body or group can do this alone, everyone must play their part. – From governments and economic operators, to also local government, community based organisations, schools, businesses, and even families.

For this reason, I believe that the development of effective partnerships will be essential.

What is the European Commission doing about it?

Over the last few years the European Commission has undertaken a number of actions aimed at tackling obesity and the underlying issues of nutrition and physical activity.

I can highlight now a few initiatives.

In December 2005 the Commission launched a public consultation through a Green Paper to identify stakeholder views across the European Union. The results of this exercise, published in September 2006, are a valuable contribution to our developing White Paper on nutrition and physical activity in this area.

We have been working to improve regulation in this area to assist individuals to make healthy decisions when purchasing food.

For example, from the base of our body of food law competence, the Community adopted last month a directive on health claims which places strong restrictions on how companies can market their products.

Including, and of particular relevance here, how nutrient profiles can be marketed such as salt, fat or sugar content.

We also have been working to develop stakeholder partnerships.

In March 2005, I launched the EU Platform on Diet, Physical Activity and Health as an innovation to allow stakeholders at European level from across society to explore common approaches to tackling diet and physical activity.

The initiative has included the involvement of not only the private actors (in the form of food industry, sport industry and public health and consumer protection NGOs) but also the European Parliament as a founding member, the EU Member States, the World Health Organisation, and the participation of countries facing similar challenges such as the United States and Canada.

Over 140 commitments have now been made by Members of the Platform, all publicly available on our website. The challenge for the Platform now is to monitor these commitments.

I would like to say at this point, how pleased I am to see that the WHO has invited the EU Platform to send its own delegation this conference.

I believe that Public-Private partnerships have real potential to meet our public health goals to combat overweight and obesity.

There will be an opportunity to debate these initiatives on Friday at the dedicated satellite session organised by the Commission on Public-Private partnerships.

A further aspect of our work is our support for a number of nutrition and physical activity related actions under the both the Public Health Action Programme, and through its Research Programme.

There is by no means time to list these here, but I understand that some of these will be presented in a lunchtime forum tomorrow.

So this is just a snapshot of some of our actions.

Now, as I mentioned earlier we intend to adopt a White Paper in Nutrition and Physical Activity next year.

In the White Paper, I plan to bring together - into a coherent strategic framework – the Community level actions that will contribute to these goals, across all sectors.

This includes, for example:

Reflections on the appropriate response from the Community’s competence in food law, particularly in the area of food labelling and food advertising.

A revision of the legislation in this area is due now to ensure that consumers have all the information they need to make healthy choices when purchasing their food.

Reflections on how to encourage and promote a higher consumption of fruit and vegetables in Europe in the framework of the common agricultural policy

The development of a common Community monitoring approach to food consumption

Initiatives by colleagues working in Education and Culture field towards a White Paper on Sport

In addition, other aspects of the Community’s policies are still being considered in our discussions with colleagues working on, amongst others, education, sports, employment, urban development, and research.

The EC Treaty will, of course, set boundaries to Community action in this area.

However, many of the competences that influence this issue are either shared or lie fully within the orbit of the EU Member States. Or, alternatively, it may be the most effective actions are self regulatory approaches, as the EU Platform is exploring.

I intend therefore to also use the White Paper to set out my vision for how best these the Commission can support both Member States, and the development of partnerships at various levels in society.

Closing points

The development of the next steps for Europe in tackling these issues takes place in an uncertain, and fast changing, environment. Obesity prevalence rates (and with them ill-health) are rising fast.

I believe it is essential that Europe intervenes now with actions based on sound judgement. The cost of doing nothing will be very high.

With time, and as new data emerges about what actions are most effective, there will be an opportunity to refine our approach.

The prevalence of obesity and overweight will be an important, and high profile, indicator to monitor our progress as a region.

I believe that these initiatives combined with the important reforms now taking place in some Member States will have a powerful effect across the Region as a whole.

I look forward to seeing obesity, nutrition and activity placed high on the political agenda across the Region, and effectively tackled.

Thank you.

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