Scientists say that unless nations start to control obesity, health systems could end up being swamped by medical conditions such as heart problems, diabetes and cancer.
Experts to governments: get control of obesity or pay the consequences
Medical researchers warned governments yesterday that without urgent action such as taxing junk food, developed nations would be in the grips of an obesity crisis within 20 years.
In a series of articles published yesterday in the The Lancet, a medical journal, the researchers said that a United Nations meeting on obesity in New York next month offered a "once in a lifetime opportunity for the world to get on top of this problem".
The scientists said that not a single nation had properly got to grips with the issue and that, unless they did, health systems could end up being swamped by medical conditions associated with obesity, such as heart problems, diabetes and cancer.
The warnings come on the heels of a recent survey by Seha, the Abu Dhabi health services company, which found that 29 per cent of children in the capital were either overweight or obese.
The UAE has second highest rate of diabetes in the world.
Researchers said the problems were not new and were caused by an abundance of rich food, too little exercise and an unwillingness of policymakers to take action such as taxing junk food, limiting advertising by unhealthy fast food companies, introducing better food labelling, giving state help to parents with overweight children and providing surgery for overweight adults and children.
In the US, which along with the UK has the highest obesity rate, it was estimated on current trends that there would be 65 million additional obese adults by 2030, bringing the total to 164 million. Healthcare spending on illnesses associated with obesity would increase by US$66 billion (Dh242bn) over the same period.
Prof Steven Gortmaker, a Harvard University academic who co-led an analysis of the causes of the obesity epidemic, said it was vital for governments to put effective policies in place immediately.
"A good place to start is to begin by thinking about children," he said.
"Children cannot distinguish between fact and fantasy. They're not making their own decisions here."
Prof Klim McPherson, another of the lead researchers from Oxford University, said the problem needed to be treated as seriously as smoking but that governments had shied away from taking decisive action.
He said that, while he believed many politicians appreciated the problem, they shied away from taking action because of fears they would be accused of trying to impose a "nanny state".
"They don't want to be labelled with that particular insult, as they see it," he told a press conference in London.
"I think they do 'get it' [the obesity problem] but they don't know what to do about it, and they don't think it's their essential responsibility."
Prof Boyd Swinburn, who is based in Australia and works for the World Health Organisation, also criticised governments' reticence to confront what he described as the "obesity crisis".
"There is more willingness to invest in drugs and surgery than dealing with the underlying causes," he said, adding that the international food industry had been effective in getting people "addicted" to their products while blocking proposals to discourage consumption.