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Beating Obesity By Any Means Necessary

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This is the time of the year when we make resolutions. We promise ourselves we’ll pay off that credit card debt or be a better correspondent or keep a tidier home. But given the effect of the national obesity epidemic, it’s not surprising that the most common of them all has to do with the battle of the bulge. No more junk food. Lose 20 pounds. Work out more.

Of the astonishing 35.7 percent of American adults who are obese, many suffer from related diseases: Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, stroke, even some kinds of cancer.

Perhaps most disturbing is that the number of overweight children has tripled since 1980: About 17 percent of American kids (ages 2 to 19) are obese.

Unless something is done, many of those children will grow up to be obese adults.

We ban unsafe cribs and scrutinize toys for safety. Why not help children and their parents make better choices about food?

That’s why recent news of small declines in childhood obesity rates has come as a ray of hope after years of gloomy studies about the lack of progress in the fight against fat.

A study by the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention published last week in the Journal of the American Medical Association reports a 1.8 percent drop in the number of pre-school kids (2- to 4-years-old) who are overweight.

This comes on the heels of a Sept. 2012 survey by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which reported that following peaks in the early 2000s, some cities and states have observed modest declines in rates of childhood obesity.

Though the declines have been small and poor and minority children have been less affected than whites, Dr. Thomas Farley, New York City’s Health Commissioner, told The New York Times, “It’s been nothing but bad news for 30 years so the fact that we have any good news is a big story.”

Perhaps most encouraging of the new data is that declining rates of childhood obesity have shown up in cities where there has been a concerted effort to teach kids about the benefits of healthy eating.

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has been out front on diet and health issues. In 2007 he helped implement restrictions on the use of trans fats in bakeries and fast food restaurants. Last summer he pushed through a ban on those huge 32-ounce containers of sugary drinks, so beloved by movie fans. That prohibition will take effect in March.

Certainly not everyone supports his vision. His actions have drawn much criticism — and have made him a frequent butt of light night mockery. As Jon Stewart put it, the soda ban “combines the draconian government overreach people love with the probable lack of results they expect.”

But obesity is no laughing matter. As for the lack of results, a study of the trans fat ban showed it is working and few restaurant customers have noticed or complained about it.

In Boston where 32 percent of the city’s public schools students are overweight, Mayor Tom Menino hasn’t been quite as bold as Bloomberg but he has also taken significant steps to separate kids from the soft drinks they love.

In 2004, Boston banned soda and junk food machines from city public schools. Two years later schools had observed a “significant decrease” in consumption. In 2011, Menino issued an executive order designed to stop the sale, advertising or promotion of sugary drinks on city property within six months.

Critics call these initiatives “nanny government” but when we taxpayers have to pay for the unhealthful habits of the growing numbers of obese Americans, isn’t it a good idea to make it a little harder for children to get their hands on food that will make them sick?

Obesity remains a serious and costly epidemic. If the country is ever going to get its health care costs under control, these are the people government has to reach. We ban unsafe cribs and scrutinize toys for safety. Why not help children and their parents make better choices about food?


This program aired on January 3, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.