Dr Charles Tannock

Member of the European Parliament for London

Obesity

UEMO Conference in London - June 3rd 2005

President, Ladies and Gentlemen

It is an honour and privilege to be asked to make the introductory remarks to the opening of UEMO Pan-European Debate on Obesity held here in my Constituency of London.

This vital debate merits the highest priority by health policy makers throughout Europe over the coming years and the role of the General Practitioners in their Primary care settings will be key by educating their patients in preventing a deterioration in European citizensí health including its very youngest still at school according to recent research. GPs have a unique role in leading the multidisciplinary team, which includes the dietician and the counsellors to manage this complex multifactorial condition.

I must declare a very personal interest in this extremely important area of public health as both my late grandfather was a diagnosed diabetic and my father is currently diabetics and 6 years of endless official Parliamentary lunches on the fatty but delicious food of Brussels has taken its toll on my weight and fasting blood glucose!

I still remember as a medical student being taught about the then known correlation of obesity with increased mortality as a result of its association with Type 2 diabetes, essential hypertension and myocardial infarction and hearing for the first time of a new term Body Mass Index or a patientís weight divided by the square of the height to produce a recognised normal range.

Obesity is now known to have many other unwanted complications ranging from osteoarthritis, gallstones and hernias to varicose veins and suggestions of raised breast and endometrial cancers in women. Later in my professional career as a Consultant Psychiatrist I came across the psychological problems of depression both as a cause of obesity through comfort overeating, and depression as a reaction to the social rejection experienced by the very obese.

I also witnessed the enormous social pressures on young women to stay slim and their desperation to lose weight, causing abuse of anorectic drugs, a rise in eating disorders and even demands for thyroxine prescriptions. Many of my Chronic Schizophrenics on depot neuroleptics experienced severe overweight as a common drug side effect.

It is interesting that at this very moment winding its way through the European Parliament is the Nutrition and Health Claims Directive, which aims to regulate by requiring scientific proof the claims made by mood manufacturers of the various health benefits of their products. This comes with the additional requirement of nutrient profiling which will assess food products in terms of how healthy they are and if found wanting then prohibit additional claims of benefit such as ice cream manufacturers claiming the high calcium is good to prevent osteoporosis neglecting the fact that the high fat and sugar will increase the risk of obesity.

Of course for many years the powerful Food and Agribusiness lobby was extremely resistant at EU level to such measures fearing the serious harm to the farming industry and retail food manufacturers if people eat less fried chips and McDonalds beefburgers. Here it is worth pointing out that the CAP still accounts for some 40% of the EU budget at 37 billion Euros per year and that the average EU cow receives more tax payers subsidy than the GDP per capita of countries like India or even Ukraine!

However in recent years the Industry under consumer and public health pressure is beginning to cooperate and produce a wide range of much healthier foods. Similarly the European Commission in the Lipgene project within the EU 6th Framework Programme for Research is focusing on the metabolic syndrome, entitled "Diet, genomic and the metabolic syndrome: an integrated nutrition, agro-food, social and economic analysis", which began in 2004 and will run until 2009. The Lipgene consortium comprises 25 centres across Europe funded under the Food Quality and Safety Priority of the European Commission and we await its findings with interest.

I have said enough and I welcome the role of UEMO taking this initiative today by bringing together representatives from the pharmaceutical, food and insurance industries as well as medical experts to explore on a multidisciplinary and stakeholder basis the challenges that lie ahead for all of us.