Obesity has become one of the biggest public health challenges, globally, with more than 1.9 billion adults over the age of 18 classed as overweight, of which 650 million were obese in 2016. The World Health Organization (WHO) states that at least 2.8 million people die every year, from complications related to being overweight or obese.
Once described as the disease of affluence, the prevalence of obesity has expanded to developing countries, across all income levels, and nearly tripled between 1975 and 2016. More so than infectious diseases and other traditional healthcare issues, obesity is fast becoming the top risk factor targeting individual lives, healthcare systems and economies.
To address this public healthcare burden, a paradigm shift in focus and strategies is needed. This includes more attention being placed on preventive measures, better education on healthy nutrition – especially for children – that leads to positive behaviour change, as well as multi-stakeholder partnerships and knowledge exchange to foster stronger engagement between the public and private sectors.
Food Industry Asia (FIA) was established with the goal of harnessing the expertise of major food and beverage companies, to respond to the region's complex challenges in food safety, regulatory harmonisation and health & nutrition. Our members share common values on the responsible promotion of balanced diets and lifestyles.
At the heart of our philosophy lies a belief that the private sector can play a more positive role in civil society on many of the complex challenges associated with health & nutrition. Together, we work with a broad range of stakeholders in Asia to promote the role of multi-stakeholder partnerships as a cost-effective mechanism for delivering positive socio-economic outcomes. To this end, FIA is committed to working collaboratively with governments, policy makers, academics and civil society throughout Asia, either directly or through existing local industry groups.
Asia Roundtable on Food Innovation for Improved Nutrition (ARoFIIN)
One such collaborative multi-stakeholder platform in which FIA plays an active role is the Asia Roundtable on Food Innovation for Improved Nutrition (ARoFIIN). Convened by FIA and the Singapore government’s Health Promotion Board (HPB); Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR); and the Singapore Institute for Clinical Sciences (SICS), ARoFIIN was set up in January 2015 to leverage multi-stakeholder partnerships, bringing together experts from across government, academia, industry and civil society, to initiate and sustain dialogue on the role of food innovation in tackling obesity and chronic disease.
In June 2017, ARoFIIN launched findings from a commissioned study carried out by the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU): “Tackling Obesity in ASEAN – Prevalence, impact and guidance on interventions.” The study responds to the challenges and threats posed by obesity in the Southeast Asian region, helping to guide policymakers, health organisations and industry players work together to tackle these issues.
Following the in-country launches of the report findings, ARoFIIN carried out a series of hands-on workshops in four ASEAN markets: Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines, in which experts from across industry, government, academia and non-governmental and inter-governmental organisations came together to discuss how the report findings, especially the recommendations around interventions, could be translated into scalable country-specific solutions to the region’s obesity burden.
Responsible marketing to children
In addition to nutrition interventions, Singapore is a prime example of how multiple stakeholders, including the public and private sectors, have come together to pledge responsible marketing to children.
In line with the 2010 WHO Recommendations on the Marketing of Foods and Non-alcoholic Beverages to Children, FIA recognises the role of responsible marketing, and supports with continued commitment the strengthening and adaptation of self-regulatory measures.
Self-regulation is cost-effective, measureable, flexible, and can quickly respond to societal concerns. Industry-led self-regulation has formally been recognised in the 2010 WHO Recommendations as a means of implementing the policy objective of reducing the impact on children, from the marketing of foods high in fat, sugar and salt (HFSS).
In Asia, FIA and its members are driving the self-regulatory commitment that is effective and measurable at the national level in Singapore, India, Malaysia, Thailand, and the Philippines.
In Singapore, a public-private partnership comprising the Ministry of Health, HPB, Advertising Standards Authority of Singapore (ASAS), the Singapore Manufacturing Federation (SMF), the World Federation of Advertisers (WFA) and FIA was formed. Through this partnership, the Singapore Code of Advertising Practice (SCAP) was delivered in 2014. The Code is comprehensive in scope, applicable to all advertisers in Singapore, and based on uniform nutrition criteria, which would distinguish between products that may and may not be marketed to children.
Whole-of-society approach needed
Solving the obesity crisis requires tailored strategies that fit within the local environment. More importantly, it requires strong partnerships and open engagement among government, academia, food industry and civil society. Taking into consideration the important roles that each of these parties play will be vital in tackling related challenges. FIA recognises that there can be mistrust between parties; therefore, having honest conversations from the get-go about the role each stakeholder plays is vital, in order to ensure trust is built among all parties.
For the public and private sectors to collaborate successfully, there has to be transparent dialogue. This transparent engagement should create trust between stakeholders in both sectors, which is important to meet the goal of educating consumers and encouraging a healthier lifestyle. In this fight against obesity, we need serious, systematic intervention, paired with multi-disciplinary, multi-stakeholder approaches.