Childhood is now the United States’ worst health crisis, experts said, urging parents to ban television in kids’ rooms and lawmakers to slap a tax on sugar-laden sodas.
Two-thirds of US adults and around one fifth of American children are now overweight or obese, and the rising rate of obesity in the United States has had a debilitating effect on Americans’ health and US healthcare spending.
In addition to costing the United States of billions of dollars every year, the obesity epidemic means a generation of Americans could have shorter lives than their parents.
Childhood obesity “is the number one public health problem in the country, putting the younger generation at risk of being the first in the history of our country to have a shorter lifespan than their parents,” former president Bill Clinton told the “Weight of the Nation” conference.
The conference was the first gathering on obesity organized by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Clinton was representing the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, which aims to significantly cut childhood obesity by 2015.
CDC officials outlined two dozen steps — ranging from banning televisions from children’s bedrooms to making it easier for people to buy fresh food — that would help lower obesity rates and related medical costs, which have nearly doubled since 1998.
Eleven years ago, the medical costs associated with obesity were around 78 billion dollars a year; in 2006, they had climbed to around 147 billion dollars annually, according to a study released to coincide with Monday’s conference.
A normal-weight person’s annual healthcare expenditures are around 41 percent lower than those of obese individuals, said Dr Eric Finkelstein, lead author of the study.
The bulk of obesity-related medical spending is not linked to clinical procedures such as bariatric surgery, but rather to treating diseases caused by obesity, such as diabetes.
“The lion’s share of diabetes in the US is caused by excess weight,” said Dr Thomas Frieden, head of the CDC. The overall cost of treating diabetes is 191 billion dollars a year, according to the study led by Finkelstein.
“Obesity is costly… the only way to show real savings in health expenditures in the future is through efforts to reduce obesity and related health conditions,” Finkelstein said. The way to do that, according to Clinton, Frieden and William Dietz, director of the CDC’s division of nutrition and physical activity, is to get Americans to change the way they live.
“Obesity is a public health issue that cannot be dealt with entirely in the confines of a medical office,” Clinton told the conference.”We have to change what goes on in our homes, in our communities, in our schools,” he said.
The average American is now 23 pounds (11 kilos) overweight, and nearly half of the extra 350 calories a day that Americans consume that they did not several decades ago come from sodas. Those figures have prompted Frieden — who used hefty taxes on tobacco products to spearhead a successful campaign to curb smoking in New York — to suggest a similar tax on sugary soft drinks to help fight obesity.
Dietz told a group of schoolchildren from Pennsylvania that 65 percent of US children have a television in their bedroom, adding that he thought the box should be banned from kids’ rooms, and youngsters encouraged to be physically active instead.
Obesity is defined as having a body mass index — calculated by dividing a person’s weight in kilograms by their height squared in meters — greater than 30.
In health terms, it means a person is at greater risk for a whole host of maladies, ranging from high blood pressure to diabetes, heart disease and stroke.
According to a report issued earlier this month, obesity could account for one in six dollars spent on health care by 2030.
Monday’s conference coincided with a vigorous debate among US lawmakers over President Barack Obama’s plans to reform healthcare.
“Obesity has become a microcosm of the whole thing we need to be thinking about with healthcare reform,” Clinton said.
The people most likely to be obese are America’s poor, said Frieden; “the non-rich who can just barely pay their bills,” said Clinton.
Many live in unsafe urban areas where children can’t play outside.
They have limited access to fresh, healthy food and even less time to prepare it because they work so hard to make ends meet.
So they instead buy “high-bulk, low nutrition food” and keep their children indoors, unwittingly perpetuating America’s cycle of obesity.