Obesity, a major factor in diabetes and heart disease, imposes costs on both public and private sectors and is a drag on economic growth, but business leaders meeting in Davos can't agree on what they can or should do to address it.
Obesity a weighty issue in Davos
DAVOS // Obesity, a major factor in diabetes and heart disease, imposes costs on both public and private sectors and is a drag on economic growth, but business leaders meeting in Davos can't agree on how to address it.
The World Economic Forum has some notable past achievements in health care, such as galvanising support for the fight against Aids and the vaccination of children in poor countries, but tackling obesity promises to be more complicated.
"There are huge interests involved. The question is how can we align interests? Industry sees the impact on their bottom line. They need a healthy workforce and healthy consumers," said the WEF health expert Olivier Raynaud.
The WEF estimates a cumulative US$47 trillion (Dh172.63tn) of output might be lost in the next 20 years because of non-communicable diseases and mental health problems, with obesity to blame for 44 per cent of the diabetes burden and 23 per cent of heart disease costs.
One look at the list of the strategic partners of the WEF shows how many vested interests are at play - food and drink companies are blamed for feeding the crisis, while drug manufacturers profit from soaring rates of diabetes.
There are also issues of consumer choice, and the fact that companies selling calorie-dense foods often also make a range of healthier alternatives.
"We could stop selling ice- cream, but people are still going to want to eat ice-cream," said Paul Bulcke, the chief executive of Nestlé, which has been investing heavily in healthier products.
Just this week, Coca-Cola, whose chief executive Muhtar Kent is one of the co-chairs of this year's Davos gathering, launched a commercial on US television that seeks to highlight its efforts in fighting obesity.
The WEF will host a private meeting on "healthy living" tomorrow of key players including executives from the food, healthcare and agriculture sectors as well as health regulators and ministers. "To solve the issue of tobacco, we excluded tobacco companies. But excluding food and beverage, pharmaceuticals would be a big mistake," said Mr Raynard. "The second mistake would be to only blame. The third mistake would be to be too simplistic, just focusing on reducing sugar, for example."
Khalid Al Falih, the head of Saudi Aramco, said productivity was already undermined by the poor health of some employees.
"This situation is of special concern to us because we live in a region that has one of the highest rates of obesity and diabetes in the world," he said.
Others pointed to changing habits, not necessarily diets.
"It is hard to get people to eat healthier, but we can get people to walk. All they need is shoes," said George Halvorson, the head of the UShealthcare firm Kaiser Foundation Health Plan.
But Eva Jane-Llopis, a WEF chronic disease specialist, said government intervention - such as the fizzy drink tax so vehemently opposed by industry - was still needed.
"Everybody likes physical activity because it is not contentious, but it is not a silver bullet," she said."We need regulation to level the playing field."