WHO Director-General opens a meeting of the childhood obesity commission

Dr Margaret Chan
Director-General of the World Health Organization

Opening remarks at a meeting of the High-level Commission to end childhood obesity
Geneva, Switzerland

17 July 2014

Distinguished members of the Commission, ladies and gentlemen,

Welcome to Geneva. Thank you for giving us your time. I will be brief. We all want to move quickly.

Childhood obesity is increasing sharply in every region of the world, with the increase fastest in low- and middle-income countries.

For example, in sub-Saharan Africa, the number of overweight children increased from 4 million in 1990 to 10 million in 2012. That’s more than double.

Our children are getting fatter, and I am deeply disturbed by this trend. I have spoken with many ministers of health who share my concern.

Heads of state and government need to be concerned. Society needs to be concerned. No generation of parents wants to see its children suffer because of obesity-related disease.

As we all know, the biological mechanisms that contribute to obesity are notoriously complex, as are the mechanisms behind the damage done to health.

But we need to unravel these complexities, get the science right, and then translate the science into advice and recommendations that policy-makers and parents can understand.

For decades, health officials have issued a straightforward message. Eat less. Exercise more. This hasn’t worked. The obesity epidemic is getting worse, not better.

I established this Commission to gather the best possible evidence on how to deal with what I regard as a crisis.

I established this Commission because of my deep belief that science is the most reliable guide to sound public policy, especially for something so complex as childhood obesity.

What I expect from the Commission is a state-of-the-art consensus report on which specific interventions, and which combinations, are likely to be most effective in different contexts around the world.

This guidance will need to take into account the complexity of the underlying biology of a mother and her developing child, in a world which has changed dramatically in a few short generations.

I am convinced that parents want to give their children food and beverages that promote health, not destroy it. Parents want their children to have safe places to play and run around freely.

But in making their decisions, especially about food choices, parents are confused.

Messages based on scientific evidence have to compete with messages generated by the food and beverage industries and their lobbies.

Many conduct their own research, with a well-documented bias. Many have strong allies. Economic power readily translates into political power.

The science that underpins sound public health polices and sound advice to the public is also being eroded by the way research is reported by the media.

The quality of reporting has declined as a cash-strapped industry can no longer afford to keep its top-flight reporters.

Health stories make headlines, but findings are often reported at face-value, with no critical assessment of study design, methodology, or the credibility of the authors.

No wonder the public is confused. One week eggs are as bad for the heart as cigarettes. The next week they are a good source of quality protein.

One week, fat consumption is the most important thing to avoid. The next week, sugar is the principal culprit. Later on, lack of physical activity and increased time behind computer screens get the blame.

We need to get the science right, and the advice right. We need to end the current confusion, as far as the best evidence allows.

Ladies and gentlemen,

I have high expectations for the Commission and the impact of its work.

Addressing childhood obesity is just one facet of preventing and controlling chronic noncommunicable diseases.

It is likely the hardest. If we get this right, and get governments to do the right things, we will likely be better placed to tackle other risk factors and their health consequences.