Building a stronger public health framework for a healthier world: a landmark consultation on overweight, obesity, diabetes and law
MANILA, 11 April 2014 - As the global burden of overweight, obesity and diabetes grows alarmingly, the World Health Organization (WHO) in the Western Pacific Region has supported a landmark consultation co-hosted by the International Development Law Organization (IDLO) and the medical and law faculties at the University of Sydney to explore specific legal mechanisms to address these challenges urgently and more effectively.
Held at the WHO Regional Office for the Western Pacific in Manila from 9 to 11 April, the Overweight, Obesity, Diabetes and Law (OODL) Consultation – a first in the Region – brought together public health and law professionals along with consumer rights advocates and other civil society representatives.
Chronic diseases – mainly cancer, diabetes and cardiovascular and chronic respiratory diseases – have overtaken communicable diseases as the leading causes of death and disability in the Western Pacific Region.
“It’s the first time we’ve convened lawyers, doctors and public health experts to look for solutions to this crisis of epidemic proportions in our Region. Besides the rising numbers of people who are overweight, obese and living with diabetes, these conditions are increasingly being seen among children and teenagers,” noted Dr Susan Mercado, Director, Division of Building Healthy Communities and Populations for the Western Pacific Region. “This meeting has clearly articulated the ‘environmental’ causes of overweight, obesity and diabetes. In the past, these were seen as personal health problems with risks linked to individual habits. But there’s strong evidence that these problems are underpinned by an environment saturated with cheap food products with poor nutritional value. These products are widely available and aggressively advertised, especially to children. Governments should consider a range of options to curb this epidemic, including regulatory frameworks grounded in evidence. In many instances, laws are needed to support public health goals. This is why doctors and lawyers need to team up."
“The size of the problem is simply enormous,” said Dr Stephen Colagiuri, Professor of Metabolic Health at the University of Sydney’s Boden Institute of Obesity, Nutrition, Exercise and Eating Disorders, designated as a WHO Collaborating Centre for Physical Activity, Nutrition and Obesity. “When it comes to diabetes, the Western Pacific Region has 138 million cases, one-third of the estimated global burden of 382 million. China has the world’s highest number of diabetes cases, over 98 million. Seven Pacific island nations are among the top ten countries with the highest diabetes prevalence. It’s a frightening picture.”
IDLO, based in Rome, works to empower people and communities worldwide to claim their rights, and provide governments with the know-how to realize them.
“Health is a basic human right which must be ensured through a number of approaches, including the creation and implementation of effective policies and strong laws,” explained David Patterson, IDLO Senior Legal Expert, Health. “There’s no development without social development, and there’s no social development without health.
Roger Magnusson, Professor of Health Law at the University of Sydney Law School, agreed. “When it’s used wisely, law – including legislation and fiscal policies – can be a powerful tool that changes the world for the better. Public health law needs to address the health challenges of today, and without question that means obesity, diabetes, and poor diets.”
Participants at the meeting stressed that governments cannot act alone. Civil society participation is key.
“Government action is important, of course, but it’s critical to have an informed and engaged civil society that understands the importance of a healthy lifestyle, including diet, and demands laws that protect society at large, including our children, from efforts by the private sector and other vested interests to undermine public health,” emphasized Premila Kumar, Chief Executive Officer, Consumer Council of Fiji.
The consultation included group work focusing on four areas: to identify examples of legal and policy interventions already existing in the Region that address obesity and diabetes from a prevention perspective; to address how trade impacts laws governing food; to identify champions and how to harness their involvement in this process going forward, as well as to identify challenges that may crop up in drafting legislation and how to overcome these obstacles; and to author technical recommendations on next steps and the way forward. As well, there were discussions on the investments needed to help move from words to action.
“Governments cannot afford to put their scarce resources for health in the treatment of late-stage diabetes. Families are pushed into extreme poverty when faced with costs related to amputations, chronic dialysis and even renal transplants. Diabetes-related blindness can occur in adults who could still be productive. There’s an endless list of conditions linked to diabetes and obesity that cause immense suffering to individuals and families,” concluded Dr Mercado. “We need to convince governments and donors alike to invest in prevention to help reverse this tide, as well as provide better treatment, care and rehabilitation for those already affected. We look forward to developing a comprehensive health strategy to assist countries in addressing these issues, a strategy that embraces law as an instrument for protecting the health of all people."
For more information, including media requests, please contact:
Public Information Office
WHO Western Pacific Regional Office
+63 2 528 9991 (Manila, Philippines)
International Development Law Organization
+39 366 443 8611 (Rome, Italy)
Professor Roger Magnusson
University of Sydney
+61 2 9351 0211 (Sydney, Australia)
Professor Stephen Colagiuri
University of Sydney
+61 2 9036 3103 / +61 2 9036 3104 (Sydney, Australia)