Experts say control obesity by taxing junk food

According to experts in food and nutrition the number of people in the world who are now overweight is now far more than those who are starving.

Professor Barry Popkin from the University of North Carolina, says the number of overweight people had reached 1.3 billion compared to 800 million undernourished.

Professor Popkin, who was speaking at the International Association of Agricultural Economists on the Gold Coast in Australia says all countries, both rich and poor, had failed to address the obesity boom.

Professor Popkin has followed the lives of 16,000 people in China since 1989, watching how social and economic changes have affected their diet and health.

A major shift there in diet from cereals to animal products and vegetable oils has been accompanied by a decline in physical work, more motorised transport and more television viewing.

He says a change in diets and the fact that people were doing less physical exercise has happened quickly and obesity was rapidly spreading, while hunger was slowly declining among the world's 6.5 billion population.

Popkin says the biggest increases are being seen in parts of Asia with certain populations more susceptible than others.

Professor Popkin advocates taxation, pricing and tough advertising controls, rather than education, as the weapons to fight global obesity and cites the success seen in the battle against smoking which was cut two-thirds by taxing cigarettes and increasing the price.

Professor Tony Barnett, head of the diabetes and obesity group at Birmingham University agrees and points out that at present obesity is the norm globally and under nutrition is no longer the dominant disease, while the "burden of obesity", with its related illnesses, was shifting from the rich to the poor, not only in urban but in rural areas around the world.

Barnett wants governments to develop better strategies to combat the problem and also believes food prices could be used to manipulate people's diets and influence them towards healthier options.

Professor Barnett suggests that if every calorie rich soft drink and fruit drink cost more people would consume less of it whereas if fruit and vegetable production was subsidised and cost less people would consume more of it and a healthier diet would result.

He says the problems associated with obesity, such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease, are going to increase rapidly.

Professor Benjamin Senauer from the University of Minnesota who has compared lifestyles in the U.S., which has high obesity rates with Japan, which has low rates, says the average Japanese household spends almost a quarter of its income on food compared to under 14% in the U.S.

Senauer says that while a direct tax on food in the U.S. to reduce obesity would not be politically acceptable, agricultural subsidies which resulted in cheap food could be effective.

Professor Senauer says other factors such as exercise, also play an important role and he points out that Japanese cities are based on efficient public transport and walking while the average American commutes to work, drives to the supermarket and does as little walking as possible.

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