A Big Problem

Saturday, May 24, 2008

OF ALL THE sobering facts in this week's Post series on childhood obesity, this one stood out: "For the first time in history, American children could have a shorter life span than their parents." In just two decades, obesity has become an epidemic touching every stratum of society.

According to acting Surgeon General Steven K. Galson, the prevalence of obesity has tripled among children ages 6 to 11 since 1980. A 2004 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention revealed that the average weight for 10-year-old boys and girls is 11 pounds more than it was in 1963. As Post writers Susan Levine and Rob Stein reported, almost a quarter of children through age 17 in Prince George's County and more than a third of 2- to 5-year-olds in Loudoun County are considered obese. In the District, 40 percent of schoolchildren and pre-adolescents are at least overweight.

The extra weight devastates health. Type 2 diabetes has increased tenfold among children and teens, and gallbladder disease has tripled in children ages 6 to 17. That's on top of the increased risk of asthma, high blood pressure and heart disease.

There is plenty of blame to go around. Commercials peddle unhealthful products to children. School cafeterias offer unhealthful lunch options. A lack of funding for band uniforms and sports equipment has led principals to seek revenue through vending machines dispensing fattening snacks. At the same time, many schools cut physical education classes. The two-income family has led to less nutritious dinners at home and more fattening meals out. Restaurants supersized their portions. Youngsters glommed onto computer and video games that kept them indoors and inactive. And government at all levels has been sluggish in its response.

This epidemic requires all hands on deck. One natural reaction is to turn to Congress for regulation of food ads targeting children. When the Federal Trade Commission sought similar action in the 1970s, its proposal met fierce resistance and died. Since then, Washington has preferred that industry police itself. While the industry has done a better job, still many child-oriented ads for products still don't contribute to healthful eating. But the responsibility for tackling childhood obesity is not solely that of food manufacturers.

The Post series found many people doing their part. Parents are hunting down doctors, counselors and physical therapists for their children. Schools are improving their cafeteria menus. Local governments are renegotiating vending machine contracts, banning trans-fats and agitating for food-content labeling. The federal government has programs to address obesity in children, although its support of those programs has been inconsistent.

What is needed is a champion to turn these disparate actions against childhood obesity into a unified national campaign. Dr. Galson has made this his signature mission. We

support him in his efforts and urge the Bush administration to do even more to organize those activities and boost their profile.

Without clear and focused leadership -- the kind that turned smoking from chic to undesirable -- rising obesity among America's youth and the health problems that go with it will worsen.

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