Junkfood Science: What should the next President do about obesity?

September 19, 2007

What should the next President do about obesity?

There is an obesity policy conference later today in Washington, D.C., called “The Obesity Challenge: What the Next President Should Do.” It’s sponsored by the Obesity Association and the Stop Obesity Alliance, so we can anticipate what the Presidential candidates will say.

It certainly won’t be: “Americans seem pretty healthy and happy, so the next President should just leave them alone.”

That’s not gonna happen.

Before we begin our story, you may want to know just what is the Stop Obesity Alliance. This alliance was newly created in May by America’s Health Insurance Plans (AHIP), the Surgeon General and a host of powerful obesity-related businesses and interests. The Alliance operates out of George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services (where today’s conference is held) and is partnered with the Obesity Society (formerly NAASO) for this conference.

“The initial charge of the STOP Obesity Alliance is to form consensus on the different barriers - some systemic, some cultural - that prevent effective weight management,” said the AHIP press release. The Alliance is sponsored by Sanofi-Aventis U.S., a company that will be quite familiar to Junkfood Science readers. As its U.S. chairman said when the Alliance was formed: “We're excited about the possibilities of this unique partnership and its ability to foster and change behaviors and the public dialogue about overweight, obesity and what we can do about this serious medical condition.” Ties between insurers, politicians and the pharmaceutical industry become more evident everyday. Yes, we can pretty much guess the gist of this media event.

We’ve already been given a glimpse.

New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson is addressing the conference and in a Monday press statement said: “The next President must commit to fighting America's obesity problem and possess the experience to win the fight. In New Mexico, I got junk food out of our schools and put physical education back in. I look forward to sharing my vision for change at the conference.”

Now, if you weren’t a critical thinker, you might think this statement meant that childhood obesity initiatives to remove junkfood and increase PE in schools have been winning successes in New Mexico and have resulted in lower rates of obesity. Read his statement very carefully. That’s not what he said, nor what the facts show.

New Mexico has never had a serious weight “problem.” It’s too poor and too many people don’t have enough to eat. According to the New Mexico State Center for Health Statistics, Bureau of Vital Records, it ranks 47th in the nation in per capita income and 25.9% of children live at or below the poverty level. But it leads the nation in food insecurity and hunger. One in six New Mexicans — 16.8% — suffer low or very low food security (the government’s new term for hunger). And the problem is growing.

The most recent Faces of Hunger in New Mexico report, released last year, said that since 2001, there’s been a 38% increase in residents seeking emergency food assistance — more than 238,000 a year, including 81,000 children and 21,000 seniors. The total population of this state is under 2 million. The numbers of seniors seeking emergency food aid has nearly doubled. Forty-one percent of those served by New Mexico’s food banks said they had to choose between paying for food or paying for utilities or heating fuel. And for 28%, it was a choice between food and medicine or medical care.“Over one-half of the increase we see are the most vulnerable of our community – children and seniors” said Melody Wattenbarger, Executive Director of Roadrunner Food Bank.

Hunger isn’t the only poverty-related health problem in New Mexico. In fact, according to 2006 Legislative Health and Human Services Committee, it ranks 48th among the states for the ten indicators of child well being, such as low birth weight, premature births, teen pregnancies, not completing high school, violence-related deaths, alcoholism, and not having access to health care. Death rates from accidents are more than twice the national average. Substance abuse and suicide rates among young people are two and half times the national average. The elderly 85+ years have the highest rate of suicide of any age group in the state. Among native Indian youth, grades 9 to 12, an incredible 25% reported they had attempted suicide in 2003. There is real desperation among so many in this beautiful state and much need.

Governor Richardson took office in 2002. It’s easy enough to see the effectiveness of the junk food and exercise programs in the fight against obesity — simply look at the obesity rates.

We’ll even take the most overstated numbers we can find, to possibly explain the focus on obesity: figures based on state health department telephone surveys conducted by the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System since 1984. This data is used by Trust For America’s Health in its annual reports: “F as in Fat: How Obesity Policies are Failing in America.”

The first report in 2004 (2003 data) said 20.2% of New Mexicans were “obese.”

The 2005 and 2006 reports said 21.8% of New Mexicans were “obese.”

The 2007 report said 22% of New Mexicans were “obese.”

Success only politicians could see.

And how did Governor Mike Huckabee's experience with comprehensive anti-obesity initiatives in Arkansas, including BMI report cards, work to eliminate "obesity" in Arkansas? "Obesity" rates in Arkansas went from 25.2% to 27%.

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