The Worldwide Rise In Obesity Is A Huge Business Opportunity

One in three people around the world is overweight, and the ratio is growing. "Globesity" investors see that airlines, hospitals, car companies and others must adapt to meet the expanding needs.

"Homo obesus" will cover 60% of the planet by 2050, according to projections
"Homo obesus" will cover 60% of the planet by 2050, according to projections
Paul Molga

MARSEILLE — There are now obese mannequins for crash tests, XXL MRI machines, jumbo-sized seats in World Cup soccer stadiums. The adaptation of our daily environment to big bodies is occupying more and more engineers. That's because it's a heavyweight issue: One in three people in the world is overweight, and 671 million are considered obese. The World Health Organization has dubbed the phenomenon "globesity expand=1]" because it is an issue that concerns the entire planet.

"The progression of overweight and obesity has been general and rapid" over the last 30 years, acccording to a study conducted in 188 countries and published last spring in the medical journal The Lancet. In Europe, the number of people who are overweight has tripled since the 1980s. In the United States, a third of men and women have a body mass index of 30, which is nearly double the normal corpulence of an adult.

In emerging markets, the development of the middle classes and the Westernization of lifestyles are accelerating the trend even further. According to researchers, more than half of this world's obese individuals live in China, India, Brazil, Egypt, Mexico, Pakistan and Indonesia.

This fattening of the planet is not about to reverse itself anytime soon, mainly because fast-food chains in emerging countries are peddling their recipe for success already established in the United States and Europe. In India, where 80% of the population doesn't eat beef in accordance with the Hindu religion, the Chicken Maharaja Mac has replaced the Big Mac in a market growing at a pace of nearly 30% per year.

And American giants, who can smell the money, are investing in a big way. The world fast-food leader Yum! (KFC, Pizza Hut, Taco Bell), has announced it will open 1,000 new franchises between now and 2015, at least 20,000 of them in China.

"These chains bring about a process of change in eating habits, upset the body and speed up weight gain," says Professor Frédéric Lapostolle, who has correlated the close connection between obesity and the availability of fast food by superposing on a world map the locations of McDonald's restaurants and looking at the density of the population that is overweight. "Homo obesus" will cover 60% of the planet by 2050, according to his projections.

Industry acts as the heavy

Industry is starting to anticipate this, as much to capture new market share as to prepare for future regulations. For a year now, Samoa Air — a small airline based in the Oceanic Islands, where the rate of obesity is among the highest in the world — has successfully tested its Class XL, which has about 30 centimeters more room and is priced according to a rate system based on the weight of the passenger and flying time. It costs a passenger weighing between 60 and 80 kilos (132-176 pounds) $50 to fly to a nearby island, and four times more than that for those who exceed the norm.

But adaptation is relevant for many businesses. Last month, the president of Humanetics, one of the primary global suppliers of mannequins used in car crash tests, announced that the company had developed its first obese model, representing a man weighing 124 kilos (273 pounds), which corresponds to a BMI of 35. "It's about reflecting the physical reality of the world population," he explained at the time. "All the more so as obese people are 78% more likely to die in a car accident because of poor position in their seat and the pressure of the seat belt and airbags in standard vehicles."

BMW is among the car manufacturers addressing the issue. "We take a scientific look at things so we can build a car that 95% of our clients can use," says Ralf Kaiser, who heads the company's ergonomics.

The idea of the king-size car is taking hold, right down to details. One of the main problems overweight drivers face, for example, is getting in and out of the car. BMW is developing on a discreet handle that would be mounted above the door. To make maneuvering easier without having to turn the body, it is also considering wide-angle video cameras that would give a driver a view of the entire circumference of the vehicle.

At Porsche, ergonomics experts have come up with an electric steering column that would rise when the car is stopped so that it is easier for obese drivers to sit down in and extract themselves from the car.

Medical adaptation

In the event of accident, obese victims in southern France would do well to call the Montpellier Samu emergency medical service. Designated as a center specializing in severe obesity, its Regional University Hospital Center acquired reanimation ambulances adapted to patients weighing up to 300 kilos (661 pounds). The ambulances are equipped with XXL equipment and vacuum mattresses for transporting obese patients on stretchers. Ambulance personnel have been trained to maneuver obese patients through difficult spaces (spiral staircases, narrow opening). Doctors are looking at new medical devices and therapeutic innovation to adapt the dosages of treatment to obese patients.

In the United States, the adaptation movement started 10 years ago. Over a third of hospitals have already invested in reinforcing or enlarging their equipment. An Indianapolis hospital, for example, acquired an MRI machine with a large diameter (which could also be of interest to claustrophobics), patient lifts affixed to the ceiling to facilitate patient transfers, wheelchairs with wide seats, and extra-large blood pressure monitors.

Such demand fuels a new industrial sector made up of numerous start-ups that see "globesity" as the market of the century. "Obesity will be an investment mega-theme for at least the next 25 years," says Sarbjit Nahal, stock strategist at BofA Merrill Lynch Global Research. He bases this prediction on a poll he conducted among 50 companies whose mission is the global fight against obesity in areas as varied as pharmaceutical products, health care, nutrition, diet products and equipment for overweight people.

All of this investment around the issue, by both private and public sectors, is driven by the huge price of doing nothing. In the U.S. alone, where 65 million additional people will be obese by 2030, the Institute of Medicine estimates the annual cost of this scourge at $190 billion and predicts a 3.6% rise in public spending because of it.

"Similar to the way it happened with smoking," notes Nahal, "it's a good bet that the burden of obesity will lead governments, companies and society in general to redouble efforts to reverse the trend."

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

Erdogan And Boris Johnson: A New Global Power Duo?

As Turkey fears the EU closing ranks over defense, Turkish President Erdogan is looking to Boris Johnson as a post-Brexit ally, especially as Angela Merkel steps aside. This could undermine the deal where Ankara limits refugee entry into Europe, and other dossiers too.

Johnson and Erdogan in NYC on Sept. 20

Carolina Drüten and Gregor Schwung


BERLIN — According to the Elysée Palace, the French presidency "can't understand" why Turkey would overreact, since the defense pact that France recently signed in Paris with Greece is not aimed at Ankara. The agreement covers billions of euros' worth of military equipment, and the two countries have committed to come to each other's aid if they are attacked.

Although Paris denies this, it is difficult to see the agreement as anything other than a message, perhaps even a provocation, targeted at Turkey.

Officially, the Turkish government is unruffled, saying the pact doesn't represent a military threat. But the symbolism is clear: with the U.S., UK and Australia recently announcing the Aukus security pact, Ankara fears the EU may be closing ranks when it comes to all military issues.

What will Aukus mean for NATO?

Turkey has long felt left out in the cold, at odds with the European Union over a number of issues. Yet now President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is setting his sights on another country, which also wants to become more independent from Europe: the UK.

Europe's approach to security and defense is changing dramatically. Over the past few months, while the U.S. was negotiating the Aukus pact with Britain and Australia behind the EU's back, a submarine deal between Australia and France, which would have been worth billions, was scrapped.

The EU is happy to keep Erdogan waiting

Officially, Turkey is keeping its cards close to its chest. Addressing foreign journalists in Istanbul, Erdogan's chief advisor Ibrahim Kalin said the country was not involved in Aukus, but they hope it doesn't have a negative impact on NATO. However, the agreement will have a significant effect on Turkey.

"Before Aukus, the Turks thought that the U.S. would prevent the EU from adopting a defense policy that was independent of NATO," says Sinan Ülgen, an expert on Turkey at the Brussels think tank Carnegie Europe. "Now they are afraid that Washington may make concessions for France, which could change things."

Macron sees post-Merkel power vacuum

Turkey's concerns may well prove to be justified. Outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel always argued for closer collaboration with Turkey, partly because it is an important trading partner and partly because it has a direct influence on the influx of migrants from Asia and the Middle East to Europe.

Merkel consistently thwarted France's plans for a stricter approach from Brussels towards Turkey, and she never supported Emmanuel Macron's ideas about greater strategic autonomy for countries within the EU.

But now she that she's leaving office, Macron is keen to make the most of the power vacuum Merkel will leave behind. The prospect of France's growing influence is "not especially good news for Turkey," says Ian Lesser, vice president of the think tank German Marshall Fund.

Ankara fears the defense pact between France and Greece could be a sign of what is to come. According to a statement from the Turkish Foreign Ministry, the agreement is aimed "at NATO member Turkey" and is damaging to the alliance. Observers also assume the agreement means that France is supporting Greece's claims to certain territories in the Mediterranean which remain disputed under international law, with Turkey's own sovereignty claims.

Paris is a close ally of Athens. In the summer of 2020, Greece and Turkey were poised on the threshold of a military conflict in the eastern Mediterranean. Since then, Athens has ordered 24 Rafale fighter jets from France, and the new pact includes a deal for France to supply them with three frigates.

Photo of French President Emmanuel Macron and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis on September 27 in Paris

French President Emmanuel Macron and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis on September 27 in Paris

Sadak Souici/Le Pictorium Agency/ZUMA

Erdogan’s EU wish list

It's not the first time that Ankara has felt snubbed by the EU. Since Donald Trump left the White House, Turkey has been making a considerable effort to improve relations with Brussels. "The situation in the eastern Mediterranean is peaceful and the migrant problem is under control," says Kalin. Now it is "high time" that Europe does something for Turkey.

Erdogan's wish list is extensive: making it easier for Turks to get EU visas, renegotiating the refugee deal, making more funds available to Turkey as it continues the process of joining the EU, and moderniszing the customs union. But there is no movement on any of these issues in Brussels. They're happy to keep Erdogan waiting.

Britain consistently supported Turkey's ambition to join the EU

Now he is starting to look elsewhere. At the UN summit in September, Erdogan had a meeting with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson at the recently opened Turkish House in New York. Kalin says it was a "very good meeting" and that the two countries are "closely allied strategic partners." He says they plan to work together more closely on trade, but with a particular focus on defense.

 Turkey's second largest export market

The groundwork for collaboration was already in place. Britain consistently supported Turkey's ambition to join the EU, and gave an ultimate proof of friendship after the failed coup in 2016. Unlike other European capitals, London reacted quickly, calling the coup an "attack on Turkish democracy," and its government has generally held back in its criticism of Turkey.

At the end of last year, Johnson and Erdogan signed a new free trade agreement, which will govern commerce between the two countries post-Brexit. Erdogan has called it "the most important treaty for Turkey since the customs agreement with the EU in 1995."

After Germany, Britain is Turkey's second largest export market. "Turkey now has the opportunity to build a new partnership with the United Kingdom and it must make the most of it," says economist Ali Kücükcolak from the Istanbul Commerce University.

Erdogan is well aware of this, as Turkey is in desperate need of an economic boost. Inflation currently stands at 19%, and the currency's value is consistently falling. Turks are feeling the impact on their daily lives: food and rent are becoming increasingly expensive, while salaries remain unchanged.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!