With countries across the globe facing what the World Health Organisation (WHO) calls an ‘obesity epidemic’ it is little wonder that the fast food industry is coming under ever-increasing scrutiny.
The number of people becoming overweight or obese makes for glum reading. The adult prevalence for obesity in adults in the USA is 36 per cent, while 30 per cent of children under the age of 20 are obese. In Europe, the figures vary wildly. Italy, for example, has a 9.8 per cent adult prevalence, while the United Kingdom is at a disconcerting 26.9 per cent.
A number of factors – cultural, educational, economic and genetic – are behind these numbers, but the WHO is unequivocal: there is a link between the substantial increases in mean body weight in developed countries and the increase in consumption of fast food.
“Although some authors argue that fast food consumption has played a negligible role in the obesity epidemic,” the WHO claims. “Numerous studies have shown the opposite to be true.”
With increased weight and ill-health comes the added risk of issues such as cardio-vascular disease and type-2 diabetes. In the US alone, this obesity epidemic is costing 300,000 lives per year.
Given the deadly triumvirate of obesity, ill health and fast food, it comes as no shock to see that many countries are taking steps to limit the exposure fast food receives, particularly to young people.
What is particularly interesting to note, however, is that different countries are taking different approaches to dealing with the problem.
The Canadian province of Quebec was the first to act in the 1980s. All adverts for food products aimed at under-13s were banned from all types of media, and experts think it has worked. The province now has the lowest rates of childhood obesity in Canada.
France went for a soda tax of roughly 11c per 1.5litres of drink, which raises around €400m a year. Soft drink sales are dropping by around three per cent each year.
Earlier this year, a ban in the United Kingdom on adverts advertising junk food across media targeting children came into effect. Foods high in fat and sugar will no longer be advertised across non-broadcast media targeting under-16s. Crucially, this includes the likes of YouTube and children’s games websites. The UK also has a soda tax.
Globally, fast food sales do now appear to be falling modestly, although sales are soaring in developing countries such as Ghana and Bangladesh.
In Ireland – a country where six in 10 adults or one in four children are obese or overweight – there has been talk of a voluntary code of conduct on the marketing of junk food to children.
But critics claim this self-regulating ban simply will not go far enough, particularly with a country struggling to come to terms with the obesity epidemic.
In Bangladesh, obesity rates are soaring. Perversely, malnutrition still exists in some parts of the country, but obesity levels in girls has leapt from almost 0 per cent four decades ago to 2.3 per cent, while boys have gone from 0.03 per cent to three per cent in the same period. The fast food market is almost entirely unregulated there.
The obesity epidemic may not come down solely to fast food, but it is a major contributing factor. As long as obesity rates rise, it seems inevitable that regulation in the fast food sector will follow suit.