Twelve years ago the National Audit Office issued a statement called ‘Tackling Obesity in England’ which warned the UK government that the prevalence of obesity in England had tripled over the last 20 years. The epidemic was having a crippling effect on the country’s economy, causing an estimated 18 million days of sickness absenteeism every year. The financial cost in terms of reduced productivity and lower output was reckoned to be £2 billion per annum, a figure which didn’t take into account the fact that the work force was being constantly diminished by the premature deaths of workers from obesity-related diseases, like heart disease and Type 2 diabetes. At the time these diseases were causing 30,000 premature deaths a year, each of the victims losing an average of nine years of active life. Since this review was published, the problem has worsened, and the economic consequences and losses have grown more severe. The matter has been the focus of attention of the world’s major business leaders, who met today for their annual convention at Davos, Switzerland. At the meeting they were told that the growth of obesity has become a major drag on the pace of economic growth throughout the developed world, with overweight employees responsible for several trillion dollars worth of lost production every year.
The World Economic Forum hosted a private meeting this afternoon at which it called on firms to make more investment in workplace health. Alison Martin, a health promotion adviser employed by the
world famous insurers Swiss Re,
told executives that trying to fight the obesity problem with the same kind of taxes and legal restrictions that governments used to tackle the smoking menace will not work. Swiss Re has plans to offer lower premiums to clients who promise to go to the gym, or eat more fruit and vegetables. Firms must find ways must to encourage people to make healthy life style choices. Coca-cola, whose chief executive was co-chair of today’s Davos conference, is endeavouring to inhabit the moral high ground by launching a commercial on US cable TV telling viewers that it is now marketing 180 low calorie drinks. But of what use are sugar free drinks, and starch-reduced burghers, if the public opts to consume junk foods stuffed with calories, salt and saturated fats? Firms are making a fortune selling drugs designed to tackle Type-2 diabetes, a market which is expected to reach $50 billion a year in three years time. But this is bolting the stable door after the horse has bolted, treating symptoms rather than underlying causes. This was admitted today by the CEO of the Japanese drug giant Takeda, which is one of the world’s largest providers of anti-diabetic medications. As he told his fellow senior executives at Davos today: “To fix the problem you have to change behaviour, but changing behaviour is the most difficult thing to do.” Who among the world’s leading multinational companies will take up this challenge and invest money in tackling the obesity epidemic by enhancing their customer’s long term health?