World Economic Forum: Sugar, Obesity, and Diabetes: The Other Global Food Crisis

Davos, Switzerland, 20 January 2016

Worldwide, rates of obesity and type 2 diabetes are increasing – with profound social and economic consequences.

Across the globe, an estimated 1.5 million deaths are directly caused by diabetes; at least 2.8 million people die as a result of being overweight or obese; and 17 million more die as a result of associated cardiovascular disease. The rise of these diet-related chronic diseases is closely linked to the globalization of unhealthy lifestyles, and especially the proliferation of high-sugar food products. In response, governments around the globe are implementing a variety of regulation, public-awareness campaigns, and advertising restrictions aimed at reducing sugar consumption and improving diet. But with little impact.

With the need for effective action now urgent, this breakfast discussion drew senior representatives from a variety of Fortune 100 companies in the healthcare, retail and food industries, as well as senior academic and activists in the field.




  • Dr. Charles Alessi, Advisor, Public Health England
  • The Hon. Suresh Kumar, Executive Committee/Executive Vice President External Affairs, Sanofi

Additional Participants

  • Dick Boer, CEO, Royal Ahold; Co-Chair Health and Wellness, Consumer Goods Forum
  • Eva-Maria Hempe, Project Manager, Global Health and Healthcare, World Economic Forum
  • Sam Kass, former White House Executive Director of Let’s Move! and Senior Policy Advisor for Nutrition Policy
  • Pieter Nota, Executive Board Member, Royal Philips
  • Stephan Tanda, Board Member, Royal DSM


Crispin Ellison, Oliver Wyman partner and moderator of the event, led attendees in a lively – and thoughtful – discussion that moved beyond entrenched viewpoints to explore new approaches and collaborations. Together, the group came to consensus on three main points:

  • The scope of the challenge is vast.
  • Regulatory measures likely play a role.
  • Prohibitory measures alone won’t suffice; more creative solutions are required.

Most interesting, at a time when the retail and food industries are coming under pressure regarding sugar and sugar restrictions, this discussion incorporated leading industry players in the conversation, and elicited their ideas about how they might harness their immense knowledge of consumer behavior and marketing to positively influence better nutrition choices.

Below, the Oliver Wyman team in Davos shares their top take-aways from this groundbreaking discussion:

Scope of the challenge:

Ellison helped to established the scope – and gravity – of this complex issue by sharing that chronic disease is now the second-biggest drag on the global economy. Eva-Maria Hempe, Project Manager of Global Health and Healthcare with the World Economic Forum, then provided some context: “We calculated that the cost of non-communicable disease over a 15-year time period, from now to 2030, is five times the financial crisis of 2008,” she said. “The question is can we afford another five global financial crises? I think everybody would agree the answer is no.”

Panelist Suresh Kumar, a member the Executive Committee at Sanofi, succinctly summed up the impact of the crisis this way: “Epidemics get headlines, and chronic diseases break the bank,” he said. Diabetes-related healthcare spending is expected to rise to $802 billion by 2030, Kumar told attendees. “This trajectory cannot be sustained. What are we waiting for?”

Regulatory measures likely play a role: Across the globe, a handful of governments have introduced regulatory measures, such as a tax on sugary drinks and food, to decrease individual sugar consumption. (At the time of this event, the possibility of a UK sugar tax was being hotly debated in the British press.) Some attendees disputed the effectiveness of such measures; however, many in the room agreed that regulatory measures are an important part of a multi-pronged strategy. Panelist Dr. Charles Alessi, an advisor to Public Health England, stated: “I don’t think a sugar tax on its own will solve an awful lot, but certainly it could have a short-term effect.”

Prohibitory measures alone won’t suffice; more creative solutions are required:

Sam Kass, former White House Executive Director of Let’s Move! and Senior Policy Advisor for Nutrition Policy, made the point that people have a strong emotional connection with food, and so stakeholders must think beyond prohibitory measures. “I think if our strategy is to say to people they can’t have jam, we’re going to lose; we don’t stand a chance. Food is the deepest expression of who we are as a culture,” he said. Dr. Alessi agreed, stating: “The answer isn’t only uni-dimensional; this isn’t only about prohibition. The fundamental is around behavioral change, and we need a balanced approach to actually achieve that.”

“It’s so easy to tax or to do other things, but it’s not changing the world of how you behave,” concurred Dick Boer, CEO of Royal Ahold, a grocery holding company, and Co-Chair of Health and Wellness for Consumer Goods Forum, an industry association. “The real thing is behavior and understanding of our consumers. We, as retailers, see that as one of our tasks.”

The discussion then turned to an exploration of how marketing and industry’s keen sense of consumer insights could be tapped to change consumer behavior. “I think we have to open up the discussion beyond the usual players into how we can all come together to create healthier environments and ecosystems for health,” Hempe said. Kass advised health advocates imitate the marketing strategies of the food and beverage industry. “We’ve been trying to tell people, ‘Broccoli has fiber.’ [But] love and sex beats fiber every single time. We have to start taking that kind of sophisticated approach to communicating this better way of life.”

Download the report for more insights and take-aways.


Epidemics get headlines, and chronic diseases break the bank. This trajectory cannot be sustained. What are we waiting for?
Crispin Ellison , Partner and Public Sector Leader, Europe
Crispin Ellison, Partner and Public Sector Leader, Europe Answers 3 Questions
  • 1What was the most striking point you heard from the discussion?

    There was universal agreement this issue is best tackled through a collaborative approach – one that utilizes the various players’ strengths. For example, retailers understand consumer behavior; marketers understand how to influence consumer decisions. This debate must move away from health vs everyone else, and the turf wars must give way to creative collaboration.

  • 2What about sugar taxes? All the headlines are about sugar taxes.

    Regulatory measures, like taxes on sugary drinks, generate headlines because they are controversial. There is a place in this conversation for sugar taxes, but our discussion demonstrated we must think bigger. Regulatory measures are only part of the solution and we shouldn’t get too bogged down in debate over sugar taxes.

  • 3What happens now?

    We need to harness the positive contribution from the food and retail industries to develop joint campaigns with governments and public health players to deliver real change. In particular, we need to use the huge understanding of behaviours and marketing skills of industry to tackle nutritional habits.