A staggering 65 percent of Americans are overweight. Over 44 million Americans are considered obese. A poor diet and physical inactivity caused 400,000 deaths in 2000, a 33 percent jump over 1990, a recent government report said. Obesity now surpasses smoking in health-care costs and impact on chronic illness and is on the rise in every country in the world. It is spurred on by thousands of years of evolution that have crafted humans into beings that seek out sugar, fat, and calories and is caused by a toxic food environment that offers up food as never before. Food is available virtually everywhere and at any time. It is cheap, sold in ways to maximize consumption, engineered with fat, sugar, and flavors to exploit our biological urges, and pushed relentlessly by powerful companies that have influence at the highest levels of government.
The most startling victims are children. The food industry is granted free and unencumbered access to our children, creating conditions where even the most diligent parents have trouble fighting off the toxic influences. Because of this, today's children may be the first in American history to live shorter lives than their parents.
We are literally eating ourselves to death, and our government leaders have done almost nothing about it.
At the same time, kids get less and less exercise and physical activity. PE classes are being eliminated from school curriculums because of budget cuts and time constraints. Kids play outdoors less often. And they are driven where they need to go rather than walking or biking, particularly in urban environments.
Coming together around Common Sense Issues
This is an issue where republicans and democrats alike share the problem. Parents in red and blue states are seeing their kids get fatter and come down with asthma, diabetes or other costly health problems. It's a problem that we can work to prevent just as we worked to reduce smoking--- through education, policy change, tax measures, and activism at local, state, and national levels.
How the GOP see the Obesity Issue:
In 2004 the US House okayed ban on Fast Food Obesity Lawsuits. This prevents customers from suing fast food chains for any obesity-related health problems. It has not passed the senate yet. They are also working at the state level to ban lawsuits and many states have acted on this measure. The GOP call this a "guns and butter issue" because so many people are employed by fast food restaurants while democrats in voting against this ban are viewed by the GOP as supporting the Trial lawyer lobby. Both sides are driven by special interest concerns and haven't yet developed any policy to address the real public health problem of obesity and how we're going to change our ways as a nation.
Fast food outlets are major employers in many states. They employ more than 12 million people, second only to the government which is the largest employer in the country. So as you might imagine they are powerful lobbyists in D.C.
Of course, proposals by liberals to tax junk food to fund PE classes or classify obesity as a disease so that exercise programs and such are covered by medicare or insurance are met with skepticism. The response is that individuals need to take responsibility for their own health and choices and that businesses need to be free and not regulated. This may be true but we still have the $117 billion dollars in costs we all pay because of all the health and other problems society pays for because of obesity and declining fitness.
Newt Gingrich, a powerful policy wonk for Republicans is advocating a new National Health Policy His "Center for Health Transformation" discusses their wide-ranging mission and strategy for health policy transformation along the lines of an ownership society. Newt does see the problem of obesity and the need for more physical exercise by kids and he has publicly called for mandatory PE programs in schools from grades K-12. So this is one area of common ground. As far as I know he hasn't mentioned how this program could be funded.
How the Democrats View and advocate around this Issue:
Senator Harkin from Iowa appears to be a leader for the democrats in this area. He is a sponsor of a Senate bill asking for fast-food restaurants to post calorie and nutritional information in their restaurants about the meals served. Other measures in discussion surround the school lunch program for the poor and ways to improve the quality of food offered in schools.
How We Can Impact This Issue:
We can lead the way locally in Seattle because we ARE leading the way:
The WA state legislature is taking baby steps:
In Washington State, Senator Jeanne Kohl-Welles sponsored and got this bill passed to initiate the discussion. The problem will be funding for any such programs and what the fallout will be from removing the sponsorship funding from soda companies from the school athletic programs.
Senate Bill 5436 directs the Washington State School Directors Association, the Superintendent of Public Instruction, and other stakeholders to convene an advisory committee charged with developing a state model policy regarding access to nutritious foods and opportunities for developmentally appropriate exercise. The committee’s work must reference the nutritional content of foods and beverages sold in schools in direct competition with federal school breakfast and lunch programs, as well as the development of age-appropriate physical education curricula for Washington students.
model policy must be submitted to the Legislature and the governor by
Jan. 1, 2005. School districts are required to establish their own
policies by Aug. 1, 2005.
And Seattle schools recently made strides toward ridding the schools of the Coke and Pepsi sponsorships and removed the vending machines from schools to the detriment of their sports program budgets.
I like what one State Senator is proposing in New York and would like to propose that we investigate this tact in our state:
According to a recent Washington Post article, legislatures in at least 25 states are currently debating more than 140 bills aimed at curbing obesity.
New state laws currently under consideration would restrict the sale of soda and candy in public schools, require fast-food chains to post fat and sugar content directly on all menu boards, and even attempt to tax the fat away.
According to the Post, six bills proposed by New York State Assemblyman Felix Ortiz (D) would slap hefty taxes on not only fatty foods, "but also modern icons of sedentary living -- movie tickets, video games and DVD rentals." Ortiz estimates his tax laws would haul in over $50 million a year, which New York could use to fund public exercise and nutrition programs.
"We have focused on smoking; now it is about time we fight obesity," Ortiz told the Post.
there is lots of ridicule by conservatives about the approach of a Sin tax. But I presume the same was true when the idea of taxing cigarettes was first proposed.
Movies and Books to Read About this Issue:
Food Fight by Kelly Brownell
In Food Fight, Kelly D. Brownell, Ph.D., a world expert on obesity, nutrition, and eating disorders, reveals both the roots of the problem and what might be done. Along with coauthor Katherine Battle Horgen, Ph.D., he traces the subtle convergence of public indifference, corporate opportunism, and tradition that in a few short decades has transformed the American waistline and has created a tidal wave of disease. The authors offer an unflinching assessment of a culture that feeds its pets better than its children, manipulates children into poor eating habits with toy giveaways and in-school promotions, and makes it nearly impossible for the poor to be healthy.
But Food Fight offers good news, too. It is an inspiring call to action from one of the nation's most effective public-health advocates. Dr. Brownell outlines bold public policy initiatives for reversing the trend. He and Dr. Horgen describe steps individuals can take to help safeguard their own and their families' health. And they offer a workable plan for improving individual and family eating and exercise habits.
Fast Food Nation: A wonderful book that explains the nutrition and ingredients in junk food and what makes it so bad for your health. Things like trans fats, fructose, etc and how they are processed by your body differently than more natural ingredients are explained.
SuperSize Me-- low-budget documentary film, Partly motivated by this film, McDonald's removed the supersize option from its menu and began offering healthier options. This film is a Sundance Winner and very entertaining and scary look at what happens to your body on a steady junk food diet.
Proposed Actions our Issues Circle Could Take:
1. Motivate/seed issue groups nationwide to discuss this issue.
2) Lay out a set of actions people can take at home, school, locally, statewide, nationally.
At home: You (or your kid) might try counting your steps you take each day. If you can increase the number of steps you take each day by walking the dog, walking to school, walking up stairs, etc. you will improve your fitness and burn calories.
At School: Talk to your PTA about replacing junk food in the cafeteria with healthier options. Write your school principal.
At Local/State level: Write letters of support to your representatives who are working on this problem. Consider the benefits of a progressive tax where a 5 cent tax on junk food would go toward local or state educational or fitness programs. A sin tax is a good way to change behaviour or counteract it.
Nationally: Write Senator Harkin and encourage him to take a leadership role on this issue. He may be watching out for all the french fry farmers in his state but we gotta start somewhere.