In 2003, 168 countries signed the world’s first public health treaty: the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC). The FCTC legally bound countries to enforce major tobacco control measures, ranging from tobacco taxes to regulations on public smoking. Through a massive international effort, the FCTC has assisted countries to improve their tobacco prevention programs, and the treaty continues to be a basis for many new programs that are implementing evidence-based tobacco control strategies.
In an article in PLoS Medicine, we publish new data showing that the food and beverage industry’s activities in low- and middle-income countries parallel that of the tobacco industry in years past; moreover, as cardiovascular disease and diabetes rates rise in poor nations, junk food, soda, and alcohol are statistically the major factors giving rise to deaths among working-age populations, and the newest evidence suggests that educational programs alone aren’t effective when markets are drowned by imports of cheap, unhealthy food and readily-accessible booze. So should the public health community push for a nutritional treaty or governance structure that parallels the successful introduction of the FCTC, but addresses “unhealthy commodities” like junk food? If so, what would such a structure look like?
Zooming out from the debates about soda taxes and similar public health controversies that pit individual freedom against public health desires to reduce disease rates, there are really a few core public health problems now facing global food systems: (1) that undernutrition and famine persist as over-nutrition (malnutrition in the direction of obesity) has appeared in the same poor households in many countries; and (2) that climate change has forced us to think about how to produce food for the world’s 9+ billion people in a manner that is environmentally sound (as highlighted in our recent discussion of Oxfam’s GROW campaign).