US launches a fight against obesity
By Mary Leonard, Globe Staff, 3/10/2004
WASHINGTON -- Tommy G. Thompson, who dropped from 210 to 195 pounds by putting a pedometer on his belt and the Cabinet department he oversees on a diet, yesterday urged Americans to get off their couches and protect their lives through healthier eating and exercise habits.
"We're just too darned fat," Thompson, the secretary of health and human services, said at a news conference where he previewed the government's new, humorous advertising campaign aimed at motivating an overweight nation to look in the mirror and lose those love handles, the potbelly, and the double chin.
The "Healthy Lifestyles" campaign that Thompson launched appears to come not a moment too soon: Today, the Journal of the American Medical Association reports that poor diet and lack of physical activity was the second-leading cause of death in the United States in 2000, and obesity is gaining fast on tobacco as the most serious health risk facing Americans.
"The problem of obesity is really an epidemic, and we need to apply the same tools to combat it as if it were an infectious disease epidemic," said Dr. Julie Gerberding, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which conducted the study that examined mortality data from 1990 to 2002 to identify and quantify the causes of death.
CDC researchers found that while smoking accounted for 435,000 deaths in 2000, poor diet and physical inactivity led to 400,000 deaths that year and is likely to overtake tobacco soon because fewer Americans are smoking but more are gaining weight. Over the last decade, deaths due to obesity and sedentary lifestyles rose by 33 percent, the CDC reported.
According to HHS data, 129.6 million American adults, or 64 percent, are obese or overweight, and another 9 million children are too fat. Health officials say the condition increases the risk of heart disease, diabetes, and some forms of cancer, leading to medical costs and lost productivity that the US Surgeon General has estimated at $117 billion in 2000.
Dr. Elias A. Zerhouni, director of the National Institutes for Health, yesterday called obesity a "public health emergency" and said that the agency was directing new research into the links between obesity, disease, the environmental factors that cause sedentary lifestyles, and the body's metabolism. "We consider this a major threat and will fight it," he said.
The National Institutes for Health's budget for obesity research is $400.1 million this fiscal year, up from $378.6 million last year, and the Bush administration has requested $440.3 million for next year.
Thompson said Congress should consider giving tax credits to Americans who lose weight, and he proposed that health insurance companies reduce premiums for people who keep the pounds off. Short of that, he urged Americans to fight the battle of the bulge by changing diets that depend on fast food and prepared foods, and neglect fruits and vegetables. He also criticized lifestyles of too little exercise and too much television.
The government's education campaign suggests that even minor changes in behavior lead to slimmer bodies and healthier lives. Among the tips offered: Skate to work instead of driving. Fetch the newspaper yourself. Eat off smaller plates. Take the stairs instead of the escalator. Get a dog and walk it. Eat half your dessert and more celery sticks.
Thompson said his goal was not to make Americans feel guilty, but he did point out there were "chunky" people in the audience who could stand to do 10 sit-ups and five push-ups in front of the television when they got home.
"I've lost 15 pounds and I feel much more energetic," said Thompson, who said he still has 10 more pounds to go. If he was to be the administration's poster person for a trim figure, "I had to start looking the part," he said.
Thompson is not featured in the television ads, which were produced for free by McCann Erickson, the New York agency that created the MasterCard "priceless" commercials. The ads begin airing today at no cost to the government on CBS, NBC, ABC, Fox, and PBS. In one, a puzzled man turns in a pair of fleshy love handles to a lost-and-found clerk in a department store. In a second, a couple trip over a double chin left on the floor of a supermarket. In the third, two boys speaking Spanish find a potbelly on the beach and poke it with a stick. The body parts were lost, apparently, when their owners started exercising.
The print ads show close-ups of unshapely hips, flabby stomachs, double chins, and very round derrieres. Superimposed are a series of dotted lines, showing that gradually increasing exercise could trim the fatties down to sleeker figures.
Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a health-advocacy group, said she was happy the Bush administration was drawing attention to obesity but called the ads "a half-measure" to address it. "What they should be doing is trying to get junk food out of the schools, requiring calorie-labeling on chain-restaurant menus, prohibiting junk-food marketing aimed at children, and funding every state program to promote physical activity."she said.
Thompson said a big-budget initiative was out of the question. He also said there was a "better way" than to file lawsuits, as some obese consumers have done, against fast-food chains. Today, the House is expected to vote on the Personal Responsibility in Food Consumption Act -- known to some as the "cheeseburger bill" -- that would prevent chains from being held liable in such suits.
Thompson promised that more "provocative" ads would added to the Healthy Lifestyles campaign, but said that President Bush, the administration's most ardent exerciser, would not be in them.