A Binding Anti-Obesity International Treaty?

The front page of today’s Washington Post (along with at least 74 other major papers) announced that the Bush Administration would support the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) — the first “legally binding” treaty ever negotiated under the auspices of the World Health Organization (WHO). According to the New York Times, the treaty “bans advertising of tobacco products in countries where such prohibitions are constitutional, requires that all ingredients be listed on packaging, imposes broad legal liability for manufacturers and strongly encourages high taxes on tobacco.” It requires increased funding for tobacco control programs and even larger warning labels. It also proclaims: “Legal action is encouraged as a tobacco control strategy.” In other words, this looks like a blueprint for an anti-obesity treaty.

In a recent report on obesity, WHO proclaimed that “all countries must act more decisively” to regulate food choices, and called for maximum recommended percentages of daily calories from added sugar and protein to be set at 10 percent and 15 percent, respectively. WHO’s Director-General proclaimed that the report would be used as a “foundation for the WHO Global Strategy on Diet, Physical Activity and Health,” which will be released in May 2004. This effort has already been billed as “prevention-based” (translation: restrictions on advertising and access to food, coupled with “sin” taxes).

After the already-released nutritional recommendations, and the nutritional strategy report expected in twelve months, the next logical step is an anti-obesity treaty — similar to the tobacco treaty that Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson just announced the US would support. Indeed, Thompson took credit for bringing President Bush around on the issue: “I gave him my pitch and he was quite supportive,” Thompson said of his boss. Thompson has declared that “it is important to pressure the food industry, the fast food industry, the soft drink society” about obesity.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) has already called on WHO to turn its nutritional recommendations into nanny-state policy. After WHO released a draft of its nutritional recommendations three months ago, CSPI issued a press release saying:

We hope that the WHO will now urge governments and industry to follow up on the findings in the report by taking bold new steps that will help consumers improve their diets and promote their health. Unfortunately, heavy pressure from the food industry and the U.S. government forced the WHO to drop key public policy recommendations such as restricting food advertising to children and taxing unhealthy junk foods that had appeared in earlier draft versions of the report. We hope the WHO will eventually make concrete public policy recommendations to governments as part of its Global Strategy for Diet, Physical Activity, and Health.

The World Health Organization is poised to release a report on strategies to tackle obesity. How long will it be before WHO unveils a binding international treaty, written by dietary scold Michael Jacobson, demanding lawsuits against food companies?

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