Obesity and climate change could be tackled together

BMJ 2008; 336 doi: (Published 12 June 2008) Cite this as: BMJ 2008;336:1333
  1. Roger Dobson
  1. 1Abergavenny

The UK government’s target to halt the rise in childhood obesity by 2010 is unlikely to be met, public health specialists have been told.

Delegates to the Faculty of Public Health’s annual conference, who heard that the problem is getting worse, were also told that obesity was the public health equivalent of climate change.

“The problem of obesity continues to get worse for adults and children. A target was set in 2004 to halt the rise in childhood obesity. Despite its modest ambition it seems unlikely to be achieved,” said Derek Wanless, author of the 2004 report Securing Good Health for the Whole Population.

He said that although targets for smoking in adults by 2010 looked achievable, no target for adult obesity had been set since the early 1990s.

He cited one study that outlines the problems of rising rates of obesity: “They produce staggering figures for 2050—for example, 60% of men obese; NHS costs associated with obesity going up to £10bn [€13bn; $20bn] by 2050; but wider costs for society and businesses reaching £50bn at today’s prices. Change is needed, it argued, at multiple levels—personal, family, community, and national—exactly the argument for the framework suggested in 2004.”

The target to halt the increase in obesity among children under the age of 11 by 2010 was set almost four years ago in July 2004. It was triggered by a jump in childhood obesity in which incidence rose from 9.6% in 1995 to 13.7% in 2003.

The conference in Cardiff also heard that both the obesity epidemic and climate change need an overhaul of fundamental policy.

“It’s not just the causes of climate change and obesity that are similar, so are many of the solutions to both problems,” said Geof Rayner of Brunel University and a contributor to the Office of Science and Technology’s project on obesity.

“Both are complex challenges that require not only systematic and structural changes within our society but also fundamental behavioural changes, like building exercise into our everyday lives, being careful about eating anything your grandmother wouldn’t recognise, and always drinking water from a tap rather than a bottle.”

The faculty’s president, Alan Maryon-Davis, said that there were benefits in tackling the two problems with common tactics: “This is surely one of the best win-wins for public health. Walking and cycling can help to reduce not only your waistline but also your carbon footprint. So too can eating less meat and more locally grown fruit and vegetables—great ways to help save ourselves and the planet at the same time.”

Conference delegates heard that of the many public health risks associated with rising temperatures—including increased incidences of communicable diseases, food poisoning, skin cancer, and respiratory illness—the most potentially devastating were extreme weather events such as flooding.

Better ways to tackle flooding were urged by Michael Pitt, chairman of the NHS South West Strategic Health Authority and author of the forthcoming review into last year’s floods.

He said that it was extraordinary that nobody in the country has any duty or responsibility to measure surface water flooding. “The country was not well prepared for the degree of flooding which took place last summer, but there are many things that can be done to improve our effectiveness in adapting to climate change and more intensive periods of rainfall,” he said.

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