Can pharma halt the world’s obesity crisis?

Major research published in the Lancet this week comes as no surprise, but the findings are still sobering: across the world there are too many people who are not doing enough exercise, putting themselves at risk of diseases such as obesity and type 2 diabetes.

The research published in Lancet Global Health showed that more than a quarter (1.4 billion) adults are at risk from not doing enough physical activity – these diseases are hugely costly to society and to individuals affected.

The levels of insufficient physical activity varied widely across income groups – 16% in low-income countries, compared with 37% in high-income countries.

And in 55 (33%) of 168 countries, more than a third of the population was insufficiently active according to the figures collated in 2016.

In four countries more than half of adults were insufficiently active – Kuwait (67%), American Samoa (53%), Saudi Arabia (53%) and Iraq (52%).

But the regions with the highest increase in insufficient activity over time were high-income Western countries (from 31% in 2001 to 37% in 2016), and Latin America and the Caribbean (33% to 39%).

Countries from these regions driving this trend include Germany, New Zealand, the USA, Argentina, and Brazil.

Authors also identified several socioeconomic forces at work behind the problem – including urbanisation, sedentary occupations, and motorised transport in the richer countries where lack of exercise is most prevalent.

This research will be of interest to the pharma companies that are attempting to tackle diabetes and obesity related diseases, not just with medications but by working with governments to try and influence policy to reduce incidence of the disease.

Leaders in the field such as Novo Nordisk and AstraZeneca are actively campaigning to try and encourage governments to think about how they can encourage people to become more active, and reducing the levels of obesity in society.

With networks of experts in diabetes in countries across the world big pharma companies have realised that there is a huge opportunity to reach out to health systems using corporate social responsibility programmes that aim to tackle the issues outlined in the Lancet research.

For instance Novo has created an initiative entitled “Cities Changing Diabetes” that specifically aims to tackle the problem of “urban diabetes”.

The project involves collecting qualitative and quantitative evidence that could lead to better understanding of the problem and the contributing factors.

It has built up a network of partners across the world, including city leads, city administrations, academia, diabetes associations, health insurances, community centres and business corporations.

So far it has built relations with 16 cities across the world, representing 100 million citizens, including Beirut, Copenhagen, Leicester and Shanghai.

The project is driven by the recognition that the problem with diabetes is only going to get worse unless immediate action is taken.

According to modelling from Novo Nordisk, in order to hold the rise in prevalence of diabetes at 10%, the world must set itself a target of reducing obesity by 25% by 2045.

Novo organised a Cities Changing Diabetes Summit last year, where it made the call for joint working across sectors and disciplines in order to unite them behind the cause.

Novo has launched an Urban Diabetes Toolbox that gives policy makers tools on how to tackle the problem, including diabetes vulnerability assessment tools, and tips about how to promote healthy living.

AstraZeneca has also been active in this regard, taking part in the multi-year Action in Diabetes initiative and participating in the Global Diabetes Policy Forum in Rome last October.

Now in its third year, the event brought together more than 100 leading global experts in type 2 diabetes care to discuss best practice in policy-making.

Inspired and funded by AstraZeneca, the initiative operates in partnership with the Internatioinal Diabetes Federation, the World Heart Federation, and Primary Care Diabetes Europe, among other organisations.

AstraZeneca’s work aims to demonstrate the interconnectivity between metabolic, cardiovascular, and renal diseases and foster policies that deal with these diseases in an holistic manner.

Eli Lilly is also known for its work in diabetes, and has launched its non-communicable disease partnership with a similar aim.

It has three aims  – piloting new approaches to strengthen diabetes care, advocating to governments for better disease management, and increasing appropriate use of and compliance with medicines to improve outcomes.

The scale of the problem is daunting, but pharma’s focus on raising awareness about the issue, and bringing different stakeholders together towards the common goal of reducing obesity is an example of how industry can help to tackle one of the major social problems of our times.