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Is U.S. Playing The Heavy On WHO Plan?

Posted - Jan. 21, 2004 at 6:20 a.m.



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Some top nutrition experts are afraid that a World Health Organization plan to fight the worldwide obesity epidemic will be watered down because of pressure from the U.S. government.

A group of international public health officials will meet today in Geneva to revise portions of WHO's draft document.

The plan calls for people to limit their sugar and fat intake, and it recommends restrictions on food advertising to children. It also advises that countries should use taxes and subsidies to reduce the price of healthful foods.

The Bush administration has raised concerns about the plan, arguing that the science is not there for some of the recommendations -- for example, the contention that restricting ads would have an effect on obesity in children. The administration also argues that the document should emphasize the role of personal responsibility in controlling weight.

On Tuesday, representatives from more than 30 countries discussed the draft of WHO's Global Strategy on Diet, Physical Activity and Health. Obesity, which is a growing problem around the world, increases the risk of heart disease, diabetes, cancer and other ailments.

Bruce Silverglade, legal director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a Washington-based consumer group, fears that subtle language changes endorsed by the U.S. government will reduce the effectiveness of WHO's anti-obesity strategy.

''It's ironic that the U.S. is the country that invented fast food, Coca-Cola and Twinkies and is now telling the rest of the world how to combat obesity,'' he says.

Yale obesity expert Kelly Brownell says: ''This is a great example of the food industry bullying the government, and the government bullying the World Health Organization. Our government adopts this pious attitude about how the science is lacking, where common sense tells you that these recommendations are pretty mundane: Eat less fat and eat less sugar.''

Researcher James Hill of the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center in Denver says that although WHO's plan ''has a lot of good things in it,'' the recommendations need to be backed by good science. ''On many things, we just don't have the data.''

Van Hubbard, director of the National Institutes of Health's Division of Nutrition Research Coordination, says: ''Some of the statements in the report are more strongly worded than the current data supports. We have the same goals and objectives as WHO.''

The Department of Health and Human Services has represented the U.S. government's position on the draft plan. Bill Pierce, a spokesman for HHS, says, ''We want this to be a very strong report that will be adopted and used.''

WHO's Amalia Waxman says countries have until the end of February to comment before the final plan is presented to all member countries in May.

Unlike a landmark tobacco-control accord brokered last year by WHO, the obesity document is non-binding.

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© Copyright 2004 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.

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