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Obesity: Inequalities in EBM, medical research and policy

Ami Banerjee
Last edited 26th August 2011

Today’s main news story is that obesity is on the up and will continue to rise if coordinated action is not taken at local, national and international levels. A Lancet series of articles examines the evidence for the growing burden and cost of obesity globally and the policy steps needed to prevent 65 million more adults in the USA and 11 million more adults in the UK becoming obese by 2030. Successive governments have allowed the food industry to self-regulate and the evidence clearly suggests that this does not work, since the industry’s interest are profits.

What strikes me is that instructive lessons learned from a strikingly similar case-in-point over the last 60 years, namely the tobacco industry, are not being put into practice. There was good medical evidence for smoking and its detrimental effects of health since the work of Richard Doll and Austin Bradford Hill showed the link with lung cancer in the early 1950s, but it was not until 2005 that the World Health Organization adopted the Framework Convention for Tobacco Control, the world’s first and only public health treaty. Our policymakers smugly talk about tobacco as a tackled problem, but it was less than 10 years ago that UK policy started moving in the direction of smoke-free public places.

We have an obese body of evidence (pun intended) to show that the pathophysiology and epidemiology of obesity is bad for our health, and we have enough evidence to show that current methods of tackling industry problems are not working. Governments are quick to say that the food industry is different but what are the incentives for the food industry to behave differently? Is it going to be acceptable to wait 50-60 years before governments and global health policymakers put evidence into practice? Evidence-based medicine aims, at the end of the day, to institute changes which make the health of individuals better. It seems that there are inequalities in the way evidence is put into practice, based not just on societal interests, but on conflicts of interest, particularly multi-billion dollar industries. If we are serious about EBM and evidence-based policy, we should take lessons learned from other sectors and apply them accordingly.

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