Ladies and Gentlemen,
Thanks for your invitation to address this meeting, an event which continues to build on the wide-ranging programme that is going on to contain and reverse the sickness that plagues too many of our citizens.
Much still remains to be done.
Indeed obesity has been labelled an epidemic by the World Health Organization.
Worldwide, it is the fifth leading cause of death. Estimates show that 42 million infants and young children are obese. 70 million are overweight. Projections for the year 2030 put more than half of our populations as overweight.
Again according to the WHO, the upward shift in obesity is associated with increased consumption of high fat and high sugar foods; increased consumption of highly refined and processed foods; decreased consumption of fruits, vegetables, nuts and legumes; increased sedentary lifestyles.
Of course, being at the forefront of the battle against obesity, you hardly need anybody to remind you of the different aspects of what can only be called a crisis situation, on a local or national basis, at EU level, as well as globally.
Nor can it just be considered as a public health problem. The social dimension is also a crucial factor.
For the disease reflects the conditions of post industrialisation. Its incidence is higher within poorer strata of our societies.
There is evidence to show that an increase in socio-economic disparities correlates with a high level of obesity.
In fact, the OECD’s study “Health at a Glance “ for Europe last year, registers a 10 per cent disparity in BMI between those with a high education background and those with a low education background.
In replies to a series of parliamentary questions I tabled, the European Commission confirmed that there is a significant correlation between the incidence of obesity and being a member of lower socio-economic groups in Europe.
Moreover, beyond the medical and the social dimensions, the challenge we face is also financial.
At present in Europe, obesity is estimated to cost 70 billion euros annually in health care and lost productivity.
The total real burden is likely to be higher, as obesity causes many other diseases, including Type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular diease and certain cancers.
Seen from Brussels, the overall challenge needs to be wrapped up in the question: how shall we assist the different regional and national authorities to combat the disease by creating an EU level strategy?
There is a need for strong and comprehensive action aiming at long-term solutions. Ideally this should take the preventive route to treatment, while tackling both the root causes of health inequities as well as their impact.
This must cover an EU sponsored approach regarding how to tackle the disease, including more effective information campaigns, a supportive policy towards healthy foods, more economic incentives towards inducing physical activity in our everyday life, and where needed, professional help to individual patients.
Coming from Malta, I have in all this a personal, indeed a national interest.
In the Eurostat October 2016 survey, Malta features as having proportionately the highest number of obese adults in the EU.
I am therefore glad to note that the current Maltese presidency of the EU has adopted obesity as one of its health targets, focussing on the issue of “child obesity”.
Among other points, it will seek to complete the midterm review of the Action Plan on childhood obesity launched in February 2014 by the Greek presidency.
It plans to ensure the finalisation and launching of procurement guidelines for the supply of food to schools.
And when EU health ministers gather in March for their “informal” meeting, it intends to put childhood obesity firmly on their agenda.
In all this we urgently need to move from talk to action.
Meetings like the ones of today are meant to mobilise a general awareness through a multidimensional but integrated approach bringing together doctors, psychologists, sociologists, health planners, economists, marketeers and politicians among others.
Increasingly there is a political will to agree on strategies and plans that apply for our families and societies;
Your discussions today will again make a very worthwhile contribution to this ongoing and crucial effort.
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