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Obesity Worse Than Terrorism, Sydney Health Summit Hears

Experts gathered in Sydney say governments around the world focus too much on fighting terrorism while obesity and other so-called lifestyle diseases kill millions more people. The experts say that overcoming deadly factors such as poor diet, smoking and a lack of exercise should take top priority in the fight against a growing epidemic of preventable chronic disease. From Sydney, Phil Mercer reports.

The message at the Oxford Health Alliance Summit in Sydney is that while terrorism is a threat, it poses far less risk to world health than obesity, diabetes and smoking-related illnesses.

Experts at the meeting say that while the world has been preoccupied with fighting extremism in the past several years, initiatives to combat preventable disease were neglected. Such efforts include programs to reduce smoking and obesity, which can cause cancer, heart and lung disease and contribute to chronic conditions such as diabetes.

Lawrence Gostin is a U.S. expert in global health law, from Washington. He told delegates at the conference this week that many governments ignore this looming threat.

"There has been really an unconscionable neglect of it," he said. "We have really focused so much of our attention and resources to (the) prevention of terrorism while we have a silent epidemic of obesity and cancer and heart disease. You know, so much so that obesity may be responsible for the first reversal in longevity since 1900."

The World Health Organization estimates that 388 million people will die from chronic illness over the next decade.

Heart and lung disease, diabetes and cancer account for about 60 percent of the world's deaths. Researchers say that is not likely to improve unless urgent action is taken.

The WHO says tobacco kills almost five million people a year. Without a drop in consumption, that number could increase to 10 million by the year 2020 - and 70 percent of these deaths will be in developing countries.

While illnesses related to smoking and obesity have long been seen as problems for wealthy countries, developing nations increasingly confront them. Rising incomes in countries such as China, India and Brazil are contributing to soaring rates of obesity.

And experts around the world say the cost of caring for patients with preventable chronic illness could overwhelm health care systems in developing nations.

The meeting in Sydney brings together world experts from academia, government, economics and urban planning to promote change.

The conference will sign off with a "Sydney Resolution" calling on governments and big business to take action to avert millions of premature deaths due to chronic disease.

It will focus on four key areas, including the need to make towns and cities healthier places by promoting walking and cycling.

It also calls for reducing sugar, fat and salt content in food and increasing efforts to stop people smoking.