Intended for healthcare professionals


United States wins more time to lobby against WHO diet plan

BMJ 2004; 328 doi: (Published 29 January 2004) Cite this as: BMJ 2004;328:245
  1. Owen Dyer
  1. London

    A showdown in Geneva over an international plan to tackle obesity ended in stalemate after the United States watered down its public objections to the World Health Organization's proposed Global Strategy on Diet, Physical Activity and Health.

    The United States and its allies have postponed a confrontation on the issue, instead persuading the 2004 meeting of WHO's executive board to prolong until 29 February the period in which member states can raise objections to the existing plan. A revised plan will be drafted by WHO and presented for a vote at the full World Health Assembly in May.

    The United States was expected to put up strong resistance after a leaked letter from a senior US health department official to WHO director general Dr Lee Jong-wook criticised the organisation's research linking high sugar intake to obesity.

    The letter, from William R Steiger, special assistant at the Department of Health and Human Services, complained of “an unsubstantiated focus on ‘good’ and ‘bad’ foods, and a conclusion that specific foods are linked to non-communicable diseases and obesity.” It added: “The assertion that heavy marketing of energy-dense foods or fast food outlets increases the risk of obesity is supported by almost no data.”

    The letter provoked a robust response from Professor Kaare Norum, senior scientist of the World Health Organization's obesity campaign. In a letter to US Health Secretary Tommy Thompson, he accused the US government of making the health of millions of young Americans “a hostage to fortune” as a result of its links to business, particularly the sugar lobby.

    “It is significant that resistance from business interests, which included the sugar industry and soft drinks manufacturers with US government support, was also demonstrated when a previous WHO expert report, based on a scientific consultation in 1990, made similar recommendations intended to prevent diet-related chronic diseases,” wrote Professor Norum.

    The WHO executive board meeting which debated the global strategy was attended by Health Secretary Thompson, who brought lobbyists from the Grocery Manufacturers of America in his delegation. He said to reporters: “Wouldn't it be smarter to have the best science-based recommendations instead of having the food industry or any other industry or special interest group be able to attack the specifics because it is poor science?”

    But according to a November news release from the Grocery Manufacturers of America, Mr Thompson “encouraged GMA members to ‘go on the offensive’ against critics blaming the food industry for obesity.”

    Sources close to the negotiations say the Americans toned down their objections at the meeting, worried by adverse press coverage of their stance.