Commentary & Opinion
3:34 pm
Mon November 26, 2012

Blair Horner: Steps to Reverse the Obesity Epidemic

For too many Americans, the end of the Thanksgiving meal was followed by a “food coma.”  During the holidays, many of us know that we eat too much.

It turns out that, on average, Americans eat too much during the rest of the year too.

Unfortunately, eating too much can have devastating consequences.  Three quarters of all healthcare costs are attributed to chronic diseases such as heart disease and diabetes. The major drivers of those costly chronic conditions are tobacco use and obesity which are both preventable and treatable.

When it comes to the impact of the obesity epidemic, research is now showing that being overweight or sedentary can increase the risk of cancer as well.

One in three cancer deaths are due to nutrition and physical activity factors, including 14-20% caused by being overweight or obese.  Currently, two in three adults and one in three youth are overweight or obese, and this prevalence has increased dramatically from only a few decades ago.

Obviously, eating less and exercising more is what each of us can do.  But there are steps that policymakers can take to have an impact as well.

Public health and scientific researchers have identified and recommended numerous strategies for reducing obesity, improving nutrition, and increasing physical activity.  According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “reversing the U.S. obesity epidemic requires a comprehensive and coordinated approach that uses policy and environmental change to transform communities into places that support and promote healthy lifestyle choices for all U.S. residents.”

The American Cancer Society publishes updated nutrition and physical activity guidelines for cancer prevention and nutrition and physical activity guidelines.   Those guidelines recommend that public, private, and community organizations work collaboratively at the national, state, and local levels to implement policy and environmental changes that focus mainly on making healthy choices easier with respect to diet and physical activity.  These policy changes include:

·         Increasing access to affordable, healthy foods in communities, worksites, and schools; and decreasing access to marketing of foods and beverages of low nutritional value, particularly to youth; and

·         Providing safe, enjoyable, and accessible environments for physical activity in schools and worksites, and for transportation and recreation in communities.

So here is a checklist for next year’s New York policymakers:

√ Look to increase the tax on sugar sweetened beverages.  A one cent per ounce sugar sweetened beverage (SSB) tax could reduce consumption of drinks that are known to contribute significantly to child and adult obesity.  In the past decade, states and localities also have begun to consider taxing sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs)—including sodas, sports drinks, sweetened tea, fruit drinks and punches, and other sweetened beverages—in order to generate revenue, reduce consumption of unhealthy beverages and promote public health.  Research has shown that relatively large increases in taxes on cigarettes and other tobacco products are the single most effective policy approach to reducing tobacco use.

√ Require that young people exercise while in school.  While there are requirements on the books that physical education is mandated, a recent CDC survey reported in June that nearly half of students reported that they had no physical education classes in an average week.  The U.S. Government Accountability Office in February released a survey showing that while schools appeared more aware of the benefits of physical education, “they have reduced the amount of time spent” on such classes.

Hopefully, New York policymakers will take this issue to heart and next year’s Thanksgiving is one in which we can thank them for turning the tide on the obesity epidemic.

Blair Horner is the Vice President for Advocacy for the American Cancer Society, Eastern Division.  His commentary does not necessarily reflect the views of the American Cancer Society.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not reflect the views of this station or its management.

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