Today marks World Obesity Day. The fight against obesity is a mammoth feat in Malta, dictated by the fact that for years on end, we have been listed among the world’s most obese populations.

Just weeks ago, the World Health Organisation once again signalled a worrying trend among Maltese youths. In certain age groups, Maltese youths are the most obese. Specifically, a third of 13-year-old boys are obese or have excessive weight, while girls of the same age, are also heavier than their European counterparts.

Adults in Malta are also highly exposed, with 34 per cent being obese – among the most obese in the World Health Organisation European region.

Therefore, World Obesity Day is certainly not a day to celebrate in Malta. On the other hand, it ought to be a day where we truly start addressing the lifestyle challenges we face and an expression of our determination to fight obesity.

News of the establishment of the Malta Obesity Association by a group of medical professionals is indeed a positive deve-lopment given our country’s poor standing. I believe that awareness is key to fighting obesity.

We all go about our daily lives, often eating whatever we get our hands on, with minimal physical activity, if any at all. It seems we find time for everything, except for keeping our health in order. The media’s role in increasing awareness is crucial, and last weekend the Sunday Times of Malta dedicated its backpage to the subject, assisting the newly-born association in its cause. Investing in education, one of the association’s objectives, is an essential element in increasing awareness.

This is perhaps our first deficiency – Malta lacks awareness on obesity, and it is more often considered a laughing matter rather than a lifetime health problem which impinges on a person’s quality of life and leads to a shorter lifetime. Even worse, we often shrug off putting on weight as a token of our contented life.

Admittingly, when I was assigned the fight against obesity as part of my portfolio by Opposition leader Adrian Delia, some laughed it off or smiled.

This is indicative of the way we look at obesity. Unfortunately for some, being an obese nation is a laughing matter.

We all go about our daily lives, often eating whatever we get our hands on, with minimal physical activity, if any at all

However, for others being obese makes them a prime target for bullying, and soon becomes that thing which keeps them back from achieving their dreams.

Some people choose to do nothing about it, perhaps they feel defeated by it, but it is our job to remind them that it is in their power to bring that necessary lifestyle change.

Through a young man’s battle, I recently learned that obesity may also be caused by medical conditions. A caring society must provide support for those suffering from obesity. It pays to treat obesity now to avoid complications in the future.

Fighting obesity is not an issue to be left to NGOs to fight alone. It requires State intervention to bring about the culture change we need to register improvements. The Opposition has contributed to the subject through a private member’s Bill by my colleague Robert Cutajar.

The Healthy Lifestyle Promotion and Care of Non-Communicable Diseases Act, an initiative by the Opposition, was approved by Parliament in January 2016, but the government procrastinated for two and a half years to introduce, and only in part, the legal regulations to bring its legal provisions in force.

The purpose of the Act is to establish and ensure an inter-ministerial lifelong approach favouring physical education and healthy balanced diets for a healthy lifestyle throughout all age groups.

It also seeks to establish an advisory council to provide advice on matters related to healthy lifestyles.

Among the specified regulations, the Act seeks to regulate food consumption in schools and in their proximity, in public institutions such as old people’s homes and day centres, direct local councils’ expenditure to promote healthy lifestyles and regulating product marketing which adversely affect healthy lifestyles.

If the government is serious in combating obesity, it should bring all the aspects of the healthy lifestyle act into force without any further delay.

The fight against obesity requires a strategic plan with established milestones if we are to stand a chance in improving our well-being and eventually our world standing too. A healthy population is one that lives longer, enjoys a better quality of life, with a reduced dependency on public health institutions.

The Opposition will continue to contribute to the debate, as we strive to build a healthier society for our present and future generations.   

Ryan Callus is Opposition spokesperson for youth, sport and the fight against obesity.

This is a Times of Malta print opinion piece