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LONDON, England (November 28, 2001 – BBC)---Pacific islanders, especially women, are the fattest people in the world, according to latest figures published by the International Obesity Taskforce.

"The Pacific is the world's capital of obesity," said the taskforce's director for public affairs, Neville Rigby said.

The figures show that 55% of Tongan women, 74% percent of Samoan women and 77% of men and women living in Nauru are obese.

This is two times the proportion of overweight people in developed countries.

The levels of obesity and chronic weight-related diseases in the Pacific has grown at an alarming rate, according to the report, which was prepared for the triennial Commonwealth health ministers meeting in New Zealand.

"This is placing a tremendous burden on the health and well-being of individuals and communities and upon health care workers," the report said.

Obesity is defined as an unhealthy amount of body fat. According to the World Health Organization, an obese person is one whose body mass index, or weight in kilograms divided by the square of one's height in meters, exceeds 30.

The report blames the trend on a move away from traditional diets towards fattier, western-style foods and a lack of exercise.

"The prevention and treatment of obesity in the Pacific is also made difficult by the traditional cultural notion that 'bigness' is a sign of wealth and power," the report said.

"It is not about being rich and well fed. Obesity is most often related to poverty, low economic status, exclusion from the health system," Mr. Rigby said.

"In the Caribbean and many African countries [obesity] is disregarded, ignored, neglected. It is just taken for granted that a poor, middle-aged woman gets fat and then dies from diabetes," he added.

Mr. Rigby, who is attending the Commonwealth health ministers meeting, said obesity rates in New Zealand were also rising at an alarming rate.

"New Zealand hasn't been spared the obesity epidemic," he said. "Never in the history of the human race have so many people been so fat."

In New Zealand, 15% of men and 19% of women are obese. But the condition is worse among the country's Maori women -- 27% of whom are obese -- and Pacific Island women -- 47% are affected by the condition.

He said childhood obesity was also on the rise around the world because children are less active.

"The amount of hours spent watching TV has a direct effect on the obesity of children," Mr. Rigby said.

Various strategies were proposed for dealing with obesity. One was using taxes to encourage people to buy low-fat foods. Others were making children walk or cycle to school and limiting the size of portions served at take-away restaurants.

For additional reports from the BBC, go to PACIFIC ISLANDS REPORT News/Information Links: Radio/TV News/BBC News: Asia-Pacific.

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