Obesity rates in ASEAN countries are increasing faster than in the UK and the US, and that could have serious economic and healthcare implications for the region in the future.
This was among the key findings in an inception report by the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) for a study commissioned by the Asia Roundtable on Food Innovation for Improved Nutrition (ARoFIIN) and the Health Promotion Board of Singapore.
The report, titled The Current Landscape and State of Health in Relation to Obesity in South-East Asia, is the first to examine the economic impact of obesity across ASEAN. The initial findings were presented at the recently concluded second annual ARoFIIN Roundtable held in Singapore.
The final report, expected to be completed at the end of October this year, will indicate the scale of both the direct and indirect economic costs of obesity as well as assess policy interventions.
Based on the initial findings, the number of obese individuals in Vietnam rose by 38%, in Malaysia and Indonesia by 33% each and in Thailand by 27% between 2010 and 2014. By comparison, the number of obese individuals in the UK and the US grew by only 10% and 8%, respectively, during the same period.
Being overweight or obese increases an individual’s risk of diseases and conditions such as heart disease or stroke, Type 2 diabetes and some cancers. The EIU inception study points to research that shows that South-east Asia is already facing an epidemic of chronic, non-communicable diseases which now account for 60% of deaths in the region.
According to Zee Yoong Kang, chief executive officer of Singapore’s Health Promotion Board, obesity is shaping up to be the number one risk factor impacting health more so than infectious diseases that the healthcare sector worries about.
“If we do not address obesity, we’ll see a huge epidemic of chronic conditions, especially diabetes. Governments (in the region) need to be aware that this would be the number one healthcare challenge that we could face over the next two to three decades,” Zee said.
The initial findings by the EIU also correlated with World Health Organization (WHO) figures which indicated that rates of obesity are rising faster in many lower- and middle-income countries, compared with those in higher-income countries, and that childhood obesity is a particular concern in these countries.
EIU chief economist Dr Simon Baptist noted that while “it is early days yet, and we are just kicking off this study, initial research indicates that childhood obesity rates are growing faster in the ASEAN Six than in Japan, the UK and the US”.
He noted, however, that more evidence is needed on the economic impact of obesity in ASEAN and, importantly, which policy responses by regulators, food industry and governments make sense in an ASEAN context.
“The current prevalence of obesity in many ASEAN countries is low by global standards — although with some exceptions for childhood obesity — but the rate is rising fast and the large populations of some countries mean that they have some of the largest number of overweight and obese people,” he said.
Second ARoFIIN talk convened to tackle obesity in Asia
The theme at this year’s Asia Roundtable on Food Innovation for Improved Nutrition (ARoFIIN) was From Knowledge to Action: Listen, Learn and Lead to Deliver Results.
While the work to brainstorm scalable solutions to tackle obesity — one of the key tasks of the roundtable — remains tough and time-consuming, delegates at the forum held on January 29 in Singapore have developed a clear mission and roadmap for 2016 and beyond.
Launched in January last year, the ARoFIIN Roundtable is a public-private initiative, bringing together multi-stakeholders — from public to private and from government to civil society sectors — to dialogue on the role of food innovation and reformulation to tackle obesity and chronic diseases.
Growing obesity in the region is a cause for concern, and the latest roundtable — the second since its inception — sought to drive ARoFIIN further through concrete steps and deliverables.
Four taskforces will be coordinating ARoFIIN’s work over the next few years.
The first will focus on establishing a clear governance structure for ARoFIIN, among other things; the second will facilitate R&D in food innovation related to diets and consumer preferences in Asia as well as look into the cost-impact of the burden of obesity in Asia.
Taskforce 3 will examine the processes and enablers that will cultivate a positive regulatory climate for innovation, and Taskforce 4 will look at the double burden of undernutrition and obesity in Asia, and assess how food supply-distribution mechanisms can be optimised through joined-up dialogue in inter-governmental forums.
If we do not address obesity, we’ll see a huge epidemic of chronic conditions, especially diabetes. Governments (in the region) need to be aware that this would be the number one healthcare challenge that we could face over the next two to three decades. — Zee Yoong Kang, Chief Executive Officer
The recent roundtable was convened by the Health Promotion Board of Singapore, Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR), Singapore Institute for Clinical Sciences (SICS), and Food Industry Asia.