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Is it time to start giving Big Food the same treatment as Big Tobacco?

A Lancet commission this week hit out at the vested interests of the food industry and its role in obesity and undernutrition as well as climate change. Unease about the influence of big corporations on public health was also highlighted by a study on the political power of Coca-Cola in the US and protests in the UK over a child health body receiving sponsorship from baby-formula companies.

Industry bodies such as the UK’s Food and Drink Federation say they are taking progressive action to address the health and diet challenge. The Lancet commission however wants a global treaty — modelled on the UN convention on tobacco — committing countries to fight obesity and its mirror image of undernutrition.

The aim is ambitious, but inaction is not an option, it argues. Malnutrition in all its forms — including obesity, undernutrition, and risks for non-communicable diseases — is already the world's biggest cause of ill health and early death. 

The economic argument is strong too: the estimated global cost of obesity is $2tn a year or 2.8 per cent of world GDP, roughly the same burden, the commission notes, as “armed violence and war”.

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News round-up

Congo crisis The Ebola epidemic in the Democratic Republic of Congo worsened as guerrilla activity in the north-west of the country hampered the response. Organisations such as Unicef are scaling up their activities. The crisis is serving as a test for recent WHO reforms. (Washington Post, BMJ, Unicef, Devex). 

Venezuelan woes Amid the political turbulence in Venezuela are alarming signs for the country's health system. Venezuelans are travelling to the Colombian border for vaccinations and infant mortality is rising. (NBC, The Lancet)

HIV/Aids news The sense of crisis around the United Nations Aids Agency over allegations of sexual harassment, bullying, and abuse of power continues. In Singapore, confidential data of more than 14,000 people diagnosed with HIV has been stolen and leaked online. England hopes to be the world's first HIV-free country. (Devex, BBC, Evening Standard) 

Boxing clever The Pandemic Response Box gives researchers free access to 400 scientific compounds to speed the discovery of new drugs for deadly diseases. Researchers in turn must make their findings publicly available. (Medicines for Malaria)

Tobacco troubles The WHO confirmed it would not enter into any partnerships with the Foundation for a Smoke-Free World, funded by tobacco giant PMI, as campaigners made their feelings known. New analysis shows tobacco companies have brought great rewards for investors. (Good Governance in Tobacco Control, Guardian)

To vape or not to vape A major UK study found ecigarettes almost twice as effective as nicotine replacement treatments, such as patches and gum, at helping smokers to quit. In the US, however, the Food and Drug Administration was criticised for not doing enough to stem the teen vaping “epidemic”. (NEJM, American Lung Association)

Spotlight on leprosy World Leprosy Day highlighted the infectious but curable disease with a history of stigmatised sufferers in Asia and Africa. The New Face of Leprosy aims to project a more positive image of sufferers. (Nigerian Health Watch, Lancet). Photograph by Alexander Kumar from The Lancet, copyright 2019, with permission from Elsevier.

Lessons from Rwanda A medical school in Rwanda is combining public health training with the traditional med school curriculum in what could become a model for poorer parts of the world. (Politico)

Social prescribing The UK increased its commitment to social prescribing — patient referral to community activities as alternative therapy — by increasing the number of link workers to support general practitioners. Some remain sceptical about its effects. (FT, BBC, BMJ)

A pill for loneliness? Chronic loneliness does not just dampen spirits but also increases risks of physical disorders, including cardiovascular disease, and can make us more susceptible to infection. Could a drug help counter its effects? (The Guardian) 

Social media warning UK MPs called for an end to self-regulation in social media over mental health concerns while the government said it would even consider an outright ban following the suicide of a young girl who had viewed self-harm content online. (UK parliament, BBC)

Printing pills Parents are often faced with hacking up a child's medication into smaller — and not very accurate — doses, with potentially harmful consequences. Pharmacists in future may be able to use 3D printing to make bespoke tablets with the exact dosage required. (Mosaic)


Best from the journals

Hepatitis hopes The first major analysis of interventions against hepatitis C said improved measures could prevent 15m new infections. Up to 71m individuals are thought to be currently chronically infected. (The Lancet)

Statins for seniorsNew research suggests statins are just as useful for preventing cardiovascular diseases for the over-75s as for younger patients. Fears of side-effects from the cholesterol-lowering drug have hitherto prevented more widespread use. (The Lancet)

Surgery safety Up to 4.2m people die each year within 30 days after surgery — more than from HIV, TB and malaria combined. Half of these are in low- and middle-income countries. (The Lancet)

Night owls versus larks A large study of UK Biobank data reveals links between a person's body clock and their health. “Morning people” for example are predisposed to better mental health. (Nature Communications) 

Choking to death Air pollution is the leading cause of non-communicable disease after tobacco. The situation is critical in cities such as Delhi, where the “airpocalypse” has been estimated to cause one death in the city per hour. (BMJ)

Health at work Global costs associated with sedentary behaviour have been estimated at $65bn a year. This review assesses the health and productivity benefits of cycling, treadmill and standing workstations. (BMJ)

The rise of pseudomedicine The limited amount of treatments for dementia and worries about Alzheimer's disease have brought a disturbing increase in “pseudomedicine” — supplements and interventions that are legal and often promoted as scientifically supported, but lack credible data on their efficacy. (Jama) 


Podcast of the week

Vaccines A discussion on the work of Gavi, the global vaccines alliance. As global immunisation rates stall, how do we best ensure vaccines reach those who need them most? (CSIS Take as Directed, 23m)


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Final thought

Cereal killer Cartoon characters such as Coco the Monkey and Tony the Tiger could become endangered species under anti-obesity proposals from the UK’s opposition Labour party which wants them banned from packets of sugary breakfast cereal. Grrreat? Or unwelcome interference?

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