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Drive Innovation January 26, 2016

Sugar, Sex and Fiber: New Approaches to Addressing Global Obesity Crisis

Partner, Health & Life Sciences, Oliver Wyman

On January 20, Oliver Wyman convened a panel discussion during the World Economic Forum annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland, on the timely topic of the sugar crisis, and how industry and governments can work together to lower individuals’ sugar consumption. Representatives from a variety of Fortune 100 companies in the healthcare, retail and food industries, as well as activists in the field, senior academics and the media, attended “Sugar, Obesity and Diabetes – The Other Global Food Crisis,” exploring new approaches and debating a path forward. The diverse group of attendees and perspectives came to agreement on three main points, as summarized here by Oliver Wyman Partner and Public Health Leader Crispin Ellison:

1. The scope of the problem is vast and requires urgent action.

Worldwide, at least 2.8 million people die as a result of being overweight or obese, and 17 million more die as a result of associated cardiovascular disease. Panelist Suresh Kumar, a member of the Executive Committee at Sanofi, warned that diabetes is the fastest growing chronic disease in the world. “Epidemics get headlines but it is chronic disease that breaks the bank,” he said.

In fact, by 2030, the financial impact of chronic disease will be five times that of the recent economic crisis, a representative of the World Economic Forum told attendees. The devastating human impact and the staggering economic toll demand that stakeholders take bold action, said panelist Dr. Charles Alessi, a practicing physician and advisor to Public Health England. “A war on sugar, similar to the war waged on salt, is needed,” he said.

2. Regulatory measures are needed …

Regulatory measures, such as a sugar tax (the topic of much debate currently in the UK) and advertising restrictions, are to date the most common approaches to limiting sugar consumption. Whilst there was agreement that some form of regulatory response was essential, there was mixed opinion about the most effective way to regulate sugar intake.

Representatives of the Mexican beverage industry challenged the reported effectiveness of Mexico’s so-called fizzy drink tax, arguing it is has had minimal effect thus far. But others argued that sugar taxes should be considered, as they send a strong message to consumers and across the entire food-and-beverage supply chain.

Restrictions might need not be regulated, as it was noted that Norwegian companies self-regulate and do not advertise sugary drinks or snacks to children less than 13 years old.

3. … but alone, won’t suffice. A bigger, broader approach is needed.

All in attendance agreed that regulation is not the sole solution. Instead, the challenge requires that stakeholders view it with a wider lens. “There are numerous complex factors that cause obesity. The environment we live, work, and play in steers us towards overconsumption and being sedentary. Just as there are numerous factors driving up sugar consumption levels, there needs to be a range of actions to lower it. There is no single silver bullet,” Dr. Alessi said in an interview.

Sam Kass, recently executive director of Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move initiative and White House Senior Policy Advisor for Nutrition Policy, made the point that sugary products tend to be promoted as fun, cool, or sexy; whereas healthy food products simply tout health benefits. “Sex beats fiber every day,” he told the room – landing the most Tweetable quote of the day.

Kass then initiated a lively discussion on the importance of “rebranding” healthy foods. And food and retail industry leaders acknowledged the role their industries have to play, including using their marketing expertise to influence consumer behaviours and encourage healthier eating habits.

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