Not since the World Health Organisation took on the tobacco barons has there been such an international cat fight. But the new war concerns an equally menacing public health threat. As the US surgeon general, David Warner, has warned, obesity is quickly eclipsing tobacco as the number one threat to public health in developed states. Indeed, it is no longer confined to affluent societies. Obesity is becoming a growing problem, alongside the more familiar malnutrition, in developing countries too. Over a decade on from its last comprehensive look at diet and nutrition, the WHO launched a new report yesterday setting out the science, which suggested Sugar should be restricted to 10% of calories consumed.
Surprise, surprise, it has been met with howls of protest from the Sugar industry and the multi-billion soft drinks and food industries that manufacture "sugar-rich" products. Worse still, as our health editor documented on Monday, the Sugar industry's opposition has not been confined to democratic debate. Behind the scenes it has been as ruthless as the tobacco industry in trying to coerce the WHO into withdrawing its report. Industry-subsidised "scientific" front organisations have been set up; powerful Washington lobbyists engaged; and most serious of all, sugar caucus congressmen recruited to bring the WHO to heal with the threat that they would cut-off the £260m annual contribution which the US pays to the UN agency. To its credit the WHO has resisted all these forms of blackmail - and in doing so has won a spectacular PR victory over the lobbyists.
Just like the tobacco industry, the sugar barons remain in denial of the devastating effects of their product. Obesity has tripled in the last 20 years. Over half of adults in many developed states are obese, leading to 30,000 premature deaths in the UK - and 300,000 in the US - from heart or chronic diseases. Yet still the industry insists that a 25% sugar intake is safe. All serious research contradicts this assertion. WHO gathered together 30 international experts to draw up its report - including the leading scientist on obesity in the US. Twenty-three national reports have already set sugar targets of 10% or less of calorie intake. There is a second battle to come: a policy report, which earlier drafts suggest will include calls for removal of soft drinking vending machines in schools and a tax on high sugar products. WHO must hold its nerve and let the Science speak.