Sitting is the new smoking: what can the EU do about it?

Obesity levels in Europe have soared in recent years, which is why tackling this issue has become one the EU’s main public health priorities. At this year’s European Week of Sport (EWoS) opening event in Tartu, Estonia, the Commissioner for Health and Food Safety, Vytenis Andriukaitis, highlighted what the EU has done so far to address the issue of obesity, and made a passionate call for future action to promote healthy lifestyles across the bloc.

In his EWoS address, Commissioner Andriukaitis highlighted the Commission’s aim to support Member States in implementing an Action Plan to address childhood obesity. He also vowed to continue working with Member States to reduce the levels of sugar, salt and fat in supermarket products and make healthy foods more affordable. The Commissioner also specifically addressed the Estonian Government (that will lead policy discussions during its Presidency of the Council of the EU) to highlight the Commission’s proposal on Audio-visual Media Services, which restricts children’s exposure to marketing of foods high in fat, sugar or salt. All these measures have a significant impact on the food industry, ranging from their marketing practices to their products’ composition, and provides the opportunity, and challenges, of working with policy-makers to tackle this major public health problem.

The EWoS brings together national and local governments, sports federations, schools and universities, academics and health networks to exchange ideas on how to make EU citizens more physically active. Even though the industry is not directly involved in this event, it is crucial for food businesses to engage with these activities and support the EU’s public health objectives.

The EWoS, taking place from 22-30 September, was focused on the endorsement of the “Tartu Call For A Healthy Lifestyle”. Commissioner Andriukaitis, came together with Commissioners Navracsics (Education, Culture, Youth and Sport) and Hogan (Agriculture and Rural Development) to sign this 15-point action plan that sets-out measures for the Commission to take forward over the next two years to promote healthy lifestyles, including promoting the EU school fruit, vegetables and milk scheme that was launched this summer and supporting campaigns on healthy diets.

While the detrimental effects of smoking and alcohol consumption have been emphasised for decades, this plan shows that the focus of policy-makers will now turn towards food and nutrition and physical activity to improve people’s lifestyles. As the Mayor of Tartu stated, “sitting is the new smoking” with Commissioner Andriukaitis adding that children in particular sit around a lot of the time, playing with smart phones while eating snacks and drinking sugary drinks.

Across the EU 30%-70% of adults are overweight, while 10%-30% are affected by obesity. These conditions are associated with serious health consequences, including Type 2 diabetes, hypertension and cardiovascular disease, which both harm people’s well-being, while placing a tremendous burden on healthcare systems and economies in EU.

This is why the importance of these EU initiatives to the food industry cannot be understated. With regards to sports policy, the EU mainly has a supporting role and the competence lies mainly with Member States to propose concrete policy initiatives. Food policy, on the other hand, is an EU competence and legislation mostly derives from Brussels. Commissioner Andriukaitis, who is a cardiovascular surgeon by trade and responsible for this policy area, vowed to continue to address the problem of unhealthy lifestyles in the EU. It is therefore expected he will introduce more measures in this area over the next few years, and it will be up to the food industry to feed into this process and constructively contribute to the EU’s fight against obesity.