At the WHO European Ministerial Conference on Nutrition and Noncommunicable Diseases in the Context of Health 2020, held in Vienna, Austria on 4-5 July 2013, European Ministers of Health renewed their commitment to fight the obesity and poor nutrition-related rise in non-communicable diseases by adopting a declaration calling for evidence-based solutions from across the Region – the so-called Vienna Declaration. One might think that with soaring levels of obesity – especially among the child population – innovative and brave solutions would be called on, such as though legislations, strong push towards exclusive breastfeeding or putting better nutrition at heart of agriculture and food supply chain. Instead, the Declaration seem to be ‘yet another safe watered-down path’ not to anger the industry responsible for the problem in the first place.
The Vienna Declaration on Nutrition and Noncommunicable Diseases (NCDs) in the Context of Health 2020 underlines the importance of cooperation across sectors: involving not only health but also other ministries in initiatives ranging from food-product reformulation and labelling, to school meals and international trade. It builds on the commitments of the 2006 European Charter on Counteracting Obesity and the new WHO Policy Framework – Health 2020.
The ministers pledged to improve monitoring of the impact of the problem, and to act more effectively to address the root causes of obesity and to inform and empower their citizens to make healthy choices. The actions they explored included:
– reducing the pressure of marketing on children to consume foods high in fat, sugar and salt;
– reducing NCDs by addressing priority concerns such as excessive intake of energy, saturated and trans fats, free sugars and salt, as well as low consumption of vegetables and fruit;
– development of a new food and nutrition action plan, as well as a physical activity strategy;
– promoting the health gains of a healthy diet throughout the life-course, especially for the most vulnerable by investing in nutrition from the first stages of life, starting from before and during pregnancy, protecting, promoting and supporting breastfeeding, followed by healthy eating in the family and school environments during childhood, adolescence and the elderly;
– ensuring that the food industry is less a part of the problem and truly contributes to its solution, using an appropriate blend of regulation and voluntary agreements;
– monitoring, surveillance, evaluation and research more intensively key issues such as overweight and obesity – conditions that affect almost 30% of children wherever they are measured in Europe – across different groups in society;
– fostering healthier food choices through such means as innovations in labelling, pricing and reformulating products and in the promotion of shorter farm-to-table food chains that make local produce affordable and accessible;
– reinforcing health systems to promote health and to provide services for NCDs;
– strenghtening governance, alliances and networks and empowering communities to engage in health promotion and prevention efforts.
Re-affirming status quo of the ongoing actions and political take on the issue of poor nutrition and diet-related NCDs, the Declaration could have put a stronger emphasis on the following issues: (1) maternal health and nutrition and exclusive breastfeeding – in line with the WHO recommendations and as an explicit counter-act to intrusive advertising and marketing of baby-milk and foods in direct competition with breastmilk; (2) synergies between nutrition and food systems and agriculture, climate change, environment, trade and justice, inter alia; (3) food and nutrition poverty as well as the ongoing economic crisis and poverty and exclusion-related determinants of nutrition and NCDs. Compared to the draft Declaration, the final text was scrapped clean from any specific mentioning of which NCDs were actually meant – supposedly counting on universal recognition and agreement on NCDs. No clear timeline or figures were mentioned in terms of by when and by how much any specific targets are to be achieved. Therefore, the Declaration fell short of any sense of urgency and seriousness of the problem and its burdersome consequences for our societies and individuals. Last but not least, for largely vague reasons an issue of ‘exclusive breastfeeding for the first 6 months of life’ was removed piece by piece, squeezed into an insignificant and of no political meaning paragraph, and those who were there to represent and protect health of citizens, their current and future children approved.
Seizing the opportunity a range of health organisations issued a statement in support of actions towards better food and nutrition policies in Europe, and complement the Declaration with some more concrete ideas.