The World Health Organisation predicts that, in some European countries, obesity will overtake smoking as the main risk factor for preventable cancer over the next few decades.

At this rate, one of those countries is sure to be Malta.

In the WHO’s European Regional Obesity Report for 2022, the island is a true heavyweight.

Malta ranks second for adult overweight and obesity among the 53 countries measured, third for children aged 5-9 and second for children and adolescents aged 10-19. Malta and Turkey (ranked top) are the only two countries where over 60 per cent of men and women are overweight or obese.

Malta leads the way for men alone, with over 75 per cent of adult males carrying too much weight for their own good. And, at just under 60 per cent, more Maltese women than any other nationality, except Turkey, are classed as overweight or obese.

It’s not size that’s alarming. It’s the impact on health. Calling it a growing problem, the WHO says “excessive adiposity” is linked to many non-communicable diseases: cardiovascular disease, 13 types of cancer, type 2 diabetes and chronic respiratory disease.

Overweight and obesity is the fourth highest cause of mortality after high blood pressure, diet and tobacco and the leading risk factor for disability.

The local public health authorities profess to be taking the problem seriously. Public Health Superintendent Charmaine Gauci said recently that Malta’s efforts to tackle it are centred on addressing childhood obesity. Educational campaigns in schools promote water consumption, healthy snacking and physical activity while schools no longer permit advertising or sale of unhealthy food products.

These are excellent measures that need to be reinforced and expanded to make sure the next generations adopt a more informed approach to food. Meanwhile, though, Maltese adults are in the midst of a pandemic of excessive weight whose ill-effects may take longer to be felt but are arguably as serious as those of the COVID pandemic.

Now that COVID is nearly over (at least according to the minister for health), obesity needs to become the next major battleground for the health authorities. To have a real chance of bringing down the figures, the government needs to exert as much effort and throw as many resources as have been thrown at COVID. Perhaps over a longer period but with no less urgency.

This problem is a battle that needs to be fought on several fronts. Unhealthy foods (think processed junk, laden with sugar, carbohydrates and bad fats) are everywhere. They’re cheap, addictive, marketed profusely and far easier to purchase than healthier fare. It will be a losing battle unless natural, unprocessed foods, both meat-and plant-based, are promoted with equal intensity.

The battle needs to be waged wholeheartedly and over the long haul. It is vital that messages that promote health and prevent obesity become as prevalent and persistent over the course of people’s lifetime as messages that sell food and drink which are responsible for so much disease and morbidity, in the guise of nutrition.

In proposing that countries adopt national strategies, the WHO says they would need to target vulnerable population groups at high risk of developing obesity, such as those without the financial means of making healthy choices. Numerous government departments would need to involved in a concerted and coordinated campaign, backed by high-level, long-term political commitment.

After COVID, the Maltese government must now view tackling obesity as literally a matter of life and death.

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