The European Commission today (Thursday) adopted a green paper on the promotion of healthy diets and physical activity to begin an extensive public consultation on how to reduce obesity levels and the prevalence of associated chronic diseases in the European Union.

The green paper invites contributions on a broad range of issues related to obesity, with a view to gathering information for a European dimension to reducing obesity levels which could complement, support and coordinate existing national measures, the commission said. Around 14 million EU citizens are currently overweight or obese, of which more than 3 million are children. This figure is expected to continue to rise for the foreseeable future. The green paper calls for concrete suggestions and ideas on action that can be taken in all sectors and at every level of society to address this serious problem and to encourage Europeans towards healthier lifestyles.

"The rise in obesity is a Europe-wide problem which requires a coordinated Europe-wide approach if we are to contain and reverse this trend," said EU health and consumer protection commissioner Markos Kyprianou. "More than 400,000 children are estimated to become overweight every year, and today's overweight teenagers are tomorrow's heart attack or diabetes victims. The commission's green paper aims to stimulate discussion about effective initiatives to promote healthy diets and physical activity, so best practice can be replicated across Europe. Apart from the health benefits and cost savings to be made from tackling obesity, a coordinated European approach will also ensure that the single market is not undermined by the emergence of a patchwork of uncoordinated national measures."

Obesity levels are increasing at an alarming rate, with up to 27% of men and 38% of women now considered to be obese in some parts of the EU. The number of overweight children is also growing rapidly, currently rising by 400,000 a year. Obesity is a risk factor for many serious illnesses including heart disease, type-2 diabetes, hypertension, stroke, and certain types of cancer. Poor nutrition and insufficient exercise are among the leading causes of avoidable death in Europe, and obesity related illnesses are estimated to account for as much as 7% of total healthcare costs in the EU.

The green paper acknowledges that the obesity epidemic in the EU has many causes and this requires a diversified approach to tackling the problem. The green paper lays the base for a detailed consultation with EU institutions, member states and civil society, with a view to gathering ideas and information for a European dimension to reducing obesity levels which could complement, support and coordinate existing national measures.

Among the issues looked at in the paper are how the promotion of healthier lifestyles can be effectively integrated into other EU policy areas, the contribution that the commission's new Health and Consumer programme could make, and the role which self-regulation in the food and advertising industry can play. Respondents are asked for ideas on how information, communication and education can be improved in this area, and what actions could be taken and at what level to encourage better diets in various demographic groups. The green paper also looks at the role that the health services could play in promoting better diets and more activity, how research could be better focussed, and ways in which urban and transport planning could be adapted to make physical activity easier and safer.