February 16, 2004
Mr. Ed Aiston, Director General
International Affairs Directorate
Ottawa, Ontario K1A 0K9
Re: World Health Organization Global Strategy on Diet, Physical Activity, and Health
Dear Mr. Aiston:
I am writing on behalf of the Centre for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) to commend you on your efforts at the recent World Health Organization Executive Board (WHO) meeting in Geneva, Switzerland to promote adoption of the WHO’s "Global Strategy on Diet, Physical Activity, and Health."
CSPI is a North American non-profit health advocacy organization specializing in food and nutrition policy, with offices in Ottawa and Washington, D.C. We publish Canadian and American editions of Nutrition Action Healthletter to which approximately 100,000 Canadians and 600,000 Americans subscribe, respectively. CSPI's Ottawa health advocacy office is funded by Canadian subscribers; CSPI does not accept funding from industry or government and Nutrition Action does not carry advertisements. We have been monitoring the actions of both federal governments in relation to this WHO initiative.
As you know, the United States Government delegation to the WHO Executive Board meeting last month, led by William Steiger, special assistant to U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson, sought to delay and undermine the adoption of this important international public health initiative. In furthering this effort, the U.S. enlisted the support of a cadre of delegates representing sugar producing nations and other countries that are diplomatically beholden to the United States. This is reminiscent of tactics employed by Dr. Steiger in his government’s initial efforts to oppose the WHO’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control.
The U.S. government specifically sought to revise the WHO resolution on this matter so as to emphasize the role of individual responsibility and minimize the role of government action in the fight against obesity. However, public health research suggests that the problem of obesity, as well as diet-related heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and osteoporosis, must be addressed at multiple levels – by governments, food companies, health care providers, and communities. Focusing primarily on individual responsibility is both naive and simplistic, and in the political context, is merely an excuse for ignoring the role that government must play. Given the current food environment where high-calorie food is ubiquitous, portions are large, and low-nutrition foods are marketed heavily to children, policy, programmatic and environmental changes are needed by government to support personal efforts to eat well and increase physical activity.
The burden of diet-related chronic disease is high; it is estimated to cost $6.3 billion in health care spending and lost productivity, and cause as many as 25,000 deaths annually in Canada due to cardiovascular disease, cancer and diabetes alone. In its October 2002 World Health Report, the WHO also estimates that healthy life expectancy can be increased by over six years in countries such as Canada by addressing six health risk factors: four diet-related factors (blood cholesterol, blood pressure, overweight, and low fruit and vegetable intake), as well as smoking and physical inactivity. As such, the adoption of an effective Global Strategy will also be an important aid to elaborating the yet-to-be-defined Canadian "Integrated Pan-Canadian Healthy Living Strategy."
The vocal opposition from the food, restaurant, advertising, and other affected industries, and from the diplomatic missions they recruit to press their cases, must not compromise the public interest in supporting government intervention to advance the public’s health.
We hope the government of Canada will convey to the WHO Director General, by the close of the government comment period on February 29, 2004, its continued support for the draft of the Global Strategy originally submitted to the WHO Executive Board in January. Furthermore, we hope Canada will continue to press for adoption of the Global Strategy, without further amendments, at the World Health Assembly in May 2004.
Thank you for consideration of our views.
Bill Jeffery, L.LB.
Hon. Pierre Pettrigrew, P.C., M.P., Minister of Health,
Dr. Carolyn Bennett, Minister of State (Public Health), and
Dr. Ian Shugart, Asst. Deputy Minister, Health Policy and Communications Branch.
The Honourable Tommy Thompson, U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services
Attn: William Steiger, Ph.D.