CASE 2-7 McDonald’s and Obesity
Governments and influential health advocates around the world, spooked that their nations’ kids will become as fat as American kids, are cracking down on the marketers they blame for the explosion in childhood obesity. Across the globe, efforts are under way to slow the march of obesity.
In the United States, roughly 30 percent of American children are overweight or obese. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), an estimated 64.5 percent of
Americans tip the scales as overweight or obese, the highest percentage of fat people of any country in the world. However, adults and kids in other countries are catching up.
The World Heart Federation reports that globally there are now more than 1 billion overweight adults and that at least 400 million of those are obese. An estimated 155 million children are overweight worldwide including 30–45 million who are obese.1
In many countries, the worst increases in obesity have occurred in young people. About half a million children in Europe are suffering classic middle-aged health problems because they are too fat. Obesity among European children has been on the rise over the last 25 years. The number of overweight children in Europe did not change much from 1974 to 1984; then the rate started to creep up during the next 10 years, and it exploded after 1995.
In Britain, one in five children is overweight or obese; in Spain
30 percent; and in Italy, 36 percent. While less than 1 percent of the children in Africa suffer from malnutrition, 3 percent are overweight or obese.
Perhaps the most distressing data come from Asia, where the measure of being overweight used in Western countries may underestimate the seriousness of weight-related health problems faced by Asians. In Japan, for example, obesity is defined as a body mass index (BMI) level of 25 or more, not 30 as it is in Western countries. But Japanese health officials report that a BMI of 25 or more is already causing high rates of diabetes. About 290 million children in China are thought to be overweight, and researchers expect that number to double in the next 10 years. The World
Health Organization has warned of an escalating global epidemic of overweight and obesity.
GLOBAL REACTIONS TO OBESITY
One of the perplexing questions is why there has been a relatively sudden increase of obesity worldwide. Some opine that fast-food portion sizes are partly to blame; the average size order of French fries has nearly tripled since 1955. Some people say advertising is to blame, particularly ads aimed at children, such as those
“Obesity,” World Heart Federation, May 2007, http://www.world-heart-federation.org.
that use celebrities to market high-calorie foods. According to
USA Today, one study found that the average American child sees
10,000 food ads a year, mostly for high-fat or sugary foods and drinks. Traditionally, in developing countries, the poorest people have been the thinnest, a consequence of hard physical labor and the consumption of small amounts of traditional foods.
But when these people in poor countries migrate to cities, obesity rates rise fastest among those in the lowest socioeconomic group. Even as food companies’ battle U.S. lawsuits and legislators who blame them for inducing childhood obesity, they’re being attacked on another front—Europe—which is threatening, among other things, to ban advertising icons such Tony the Tiger and Ronald
McDonald. “I would like to see the industry not advertising directly to children,” said one European health commissioner. “If this doesn’t produce satisfactory results, we will proceed to legislation.”
The European Health Commission has called for the food industry to set its own regulations to curb so-called junk-food advertising aimed at the European Union’s 450 million citizens—or