The Fattening Of Humanity -
Obesity Now Termed
A Global Pandemic
By Irwin Arieff
PARIS (Reuters) - Medical experts warned on Monday that obesity was rapidly becoming a problem in the developing world as well as industrialized nations and could one day rival smoking in its impact on public health.
"This is a pandemic, probably one of the top five public health problems in the world. Scientists are already beginning to wonder whether it will be worse than smoking," Dr. Philip James told reporters at the start of the Eighth International Congress on Obesity, which began on Monday in Paris.
James, who heads a task force for the International Association for the Study of Obesity, and other scientists said there was considerable hope that new drugs would soon be coming on line to help fat people lose weight and stay fit.
Until then, they said, public health officials in India and the South Pacific as well as the United States and Australia should begin to modify eating behavior in both children and adults.
"If we wait, in 10 to 20 years from now it really looks like we are going to have a catastrophe on our hands," said James, who is also director of the Rowett Research Institute in Aberdeen, Scotland, and head of a United Nations commission on nutrition.
"We are emphasizing the need to begin tackling the problem earlier, to deal with childhood weight problems and to completely rethink the way we approach physical activity and diet to ensure a healthy, active lifestyle," said Dr Stephen Rossner of Stockholm's Karolinska Institute.
Rossner dismissed the stereotype of the jolly overweight person, saying research has found that obese individuals generally are financially less well off and have a lower quality of life than thinner people.
"We can't rule out that there are happy fat people. But the evidence is against it," he said.
Organizers of the four-day conference said the outlook was not all gloom and doom.
They were particularly optimistic about a new drug called orlistat that has been found in clinical trials to promote weight loss by reducing the body's absorption of dietary fat.
The drug, to be marketed by Roche Holdings AG under the name Xenical, is to go on sale in Europe in September and in the United States some time next year.
U.S. approval was delayed when health officials requested additional research on data hinting at a possible link between orlistat and breast cancer.
While orlistat has undergone extensive testing in humans, the medical experts cautioned consumers against relying on the many untested over-the-counter drugs that claim to help weight loss.
"There is a great desire for weight-loss drugs as everyone is tired of the 'eat less, exercise more' approach. But there are so many fraudulent products and so many gullible people," Rossner said.
"I always tell my patients: 'You use them at your own risk because there is no data demonstrating effectiveness and they may not be safe'," said Dr. George Bray, president of the International Association for the Study of Obesity.