New analysis published in the Lancet has found that Pacific island countries account for nine out of 10 of the top countries in the world with the highest prevalence of obesity among women and men aged 20 and above.

Looking at data from 2022, the study found that more than 1 billion people in the world are now living with obesity. Worldwide, obesity among adults has more than doubled since 1990, and has quadrupled among children and adolescents (5 to 19 years of age). The data also show that 43 percent of adults were overweight in 2022. The World Health Organisation (WHO) contributed to the data collection and analysis informing the report.

In the Pacific, overweight, obesity and diet-related noncommunicable diseases have progressively increased in every age group over recent decades and have become a major cause of early death and disability. Being overweight or obese increases the risk of developing noncommunicable diseases such as diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease. Not only does this threaten lives and affect quality of life, it stands in the way of economic and development goals by reducing the number of years that people can play an active part in the workforce.

Health leaders in the Pacific have long been aware of the increasing epidemic of obesity. However, while efforts have been made, progress has not been fast enough. Part of the challenge is that many of the factors contributing to rising rates of obesity are out of the control of those working in the health sector.

“The drivers of obesity are complex,” said Dr Mark Jacobs, WHO Representative to the South Pacific.

“In many parts of the Pacific, unhealthy food is cheap, convenient, and pushed heavily through advertising. Healthy food, on the other hand, may be increasingly difficult to get and more expensive in the face of the droughts, floods and rising seas caused by climate change. What we eat, how much we eat, and whether we are physically active also comes down to things like the culture around us and whether there is a safe and comfortable place to exercise.”

Recognising the need for new approaches, health leaders at the Fifteenth Pacific Health Ministers Meeting hosted by Tonga last September committed to a series of eight actions to address the complex drivers of obesity, particularly in children and young people.
In particular, they stressed the need to engage other government ministries, particularly the ministries of environment, trade, finance, customs, agriculture, fisheries and social development.

They also committed to empowering networks and organisations already working at the community level, such as civil society organisations, persons with lived experience, youth groups, schools, traditional leaders, local governments and faith-based organisations.

“It’s only by working together, across the whole of government and across the whole of society, that we will be able to halt rising rates of obesity,” continued Dr Jacobs.

WHO’s advice to people in the Pacific is to bring different parts of government together with health workers, parents, teachers, sports stars, community organisations and church leaders to:

*Make unhealthy foods and drinks more expensive (such as via taxes on sugary drinks) or make it harder for them to be imported;

* Make healthy food and drinks easier to access and cheaper;

* Support healthy eating in pregnancy and ensure infants are exclusively breastfed for the first six months of life;

*Establish healthy habits in childhood and regularly monitor children’s height and weight;

*Change expectations around what a good meal looks like and show that we love our families and friends by serving them healthy food and drinks; and,

*Create safe and pleasant places to exercise and show how fun it can be.

WHO is working to support Pacific island countries and areas to promote healthier behaviours, such as through the Health Promoting Schools initiative, as well as supporting health workers to test for, monitor and treat noncommunicable diseases.

Funding from the European Union and New Zealand makes WHO’s work on obesity and noncommunicable diseases in the Pacific possible.