The number of obese children is predicted to soar exponentially as governments fail to adopt adequate policies to protect children’s health in the face of commercial interests, according to a new report.
The number of children living with obesity is predicted to reach 250 million by 2030 – up from current levels of 150 million, according to the first Atlas of Childhood Obesity published by the World Obesity Federation (WOF) on Thursday.
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At the World Health Assembly in 2013, countries agreed to ensure levels of childhood obesity would be no higher in 2025 than they were in 2010-12.
The report shows that with just five years until the deadline, no country is on track to meet its target and that 156 of the 191 countries studied had a less than 10 percent chance of reaching their targets.
Obesity, which became a major challenge about 50 years ago, thanks in part to the increasing consumption of cheap, subsidised food, is a problem that concerns both rich and poor countries.
While North America, Europe, Australia and New Zealand are stabilising at high levels, other countries that depend heavily on imported food supplies are now reaching the same levels seen in the West.
“The dramatic rise in the numbers of children affected by obesity is being driven by emerging economies – in Asia, the Middle East and Latin America,” said Dr Tim Lobstein, director of policy at the WOF and one of the authors of the federation’s report.
Meanwhile, Nigeria and South Africa are predicted to have more than 6 million and 4 million obese children, respectively in the next 10 years.
The cost of doing nothing
On top of the negative consequences on children’s health, the increasing level of childhood obesity has a major impact on the state’s capacity to tackle the issue according to Johanna Ralston, CEO of the WOF.
“Children who are obese now are likely to be obese as adults who are exposed to a high level of consequential diseases,” she told Al Jazeera.
The lack of prevention and treatment of the disease during childhood will then translate into higher costs for many countries’ health services, she added.
While there are no official data establishing the economic cost of childhood obesity, the WOF has estimated that dealing with obese adults – which today number two billion – would require $1.3 trillion annually by 2030.
“And we should not forget the cost for the individual in terms of marginalisation,” noted Ralston.
Weak policies and major challenges
According to the study’s authors, government action to tackle obesity has been “weak”.
The report says that 70 percent of countries have so far failed to adopt adequate policies such as restricting the marketing of foods to children, encouraging physical activity and implementing national guidelines for healthy diets.
“Commercial interests of the food industry are a major contributor to the obesity challenge, but even in countries where policies exist, they are not implemented,” Ralston said.
Governments also face multiple internal challenges as they try to implement regulations that would, for example, reduce the level of sugar in beverages. In many countries, such as Mexico, sugary drinks are more accessible than potable water which is increasingly scarce.
The fear of losing investment also plays a role in states’ hesitation to implement certain tougher regulations, according to Ralston.
“Just like the climate crisis, we are witnessing a critical failure of government to respect and protect our children’s rights to good health now and into the future. Both global heating and childhood obesity are suffering from a lack of government leadership, and a hostile commercial environment resisting change,” she said.
“We know we can do better, and we must.”