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CHICAGO - The United States is objecting to a draft plan by the World Health Organization to fight the worldwide obesity epidemic, causing harsh international criticism and allegations that the U.S. food industry is behind the policy, the Chicago Tribune reports.
The Bush administration says that the WHO plan depends too much on unproven science to recommend people curb their consumption of sugar and other refined foods, among other measures. The draft plan additionally suggests restricting junk food marketing, improving food labeling, and hiking prices of unhealthy foods.
Public health officials have charged that U.S. opposition to the plan is due to the sugar industry, grocers and other U.S. multinational food companies seeking to block nascent international efforts to regulate food marketing, pricing, production, and trade.
The United States' position was made known in a Jan. 5 letter from William Steiger, special assistant for international affairs at the Department of Health and Human Services, to Dr. J.W. Lee, director general of the WHO, according to the Chicago Tribune. The letter repeatedly questioned the science WHO is using to support its policy recommendations, maintained that rigorous scientific studies do not clearly show that marketing fast foods or high-calorie foods to consumers increases their risk of obesity, and further claimed that there was no evidence to support the conclusion that food advertisements on television were connected to rising childhood obesity rates.
Steiger has said the United States would call for significant changes to the WHO obesity initiative based on the concerns laid out in his letter. According to Steiger, the United States would like more stress on the role of "personal responsibility" for obesity and less stress on government regulation.
In response to the U.S. position, Kaare Norum, the senior scientist in charge of the WHO's anti-obesity effort, has fired off an angry letter to HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson accusing the United States of placing business interests before public health.
In answer to such criticism, Dr. Walter Tsou, president-elect of the American Public Health Association, said the WHO's encouragement of a diet with less processed food full of fat and sugar and more fruits and vegetables is the same advice that U.S. consumers are receiving.