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Child Obesity Threatens U.S. Life Span continued...

"But we still have a little time before these children become young adults with diabetes and start to have heart attacks, stroke, kidney failure, and increased mortality," he says. "It is a massive tsunami headed for the United States. One can know it is coming. But if we wait until we see the ocean level rising over the shore, it will be too late to take action."

In an editorial accompanying the study, University of Pennsylvania demography expert Samuel H. Preston, PhD, agrees that the Olshansky/Ludwig team's calculations are accurate. But Preston disagrees with their conclusion.

"I am optimistic," Preston tells WebMD. "The U.S. lifespan has shown remarkably steady progress for a century in the U.S. And we have demonstrated that when we get to a point where lifestyle factors seriously affect national mortality, we are able to move in the proper direction."

As an example, Preston points to the epidemic of cigarette smoking that set back U.S. life expectancy in the 1950s and 1960s. A huge public effort cut smoking rates -- and Americans' life spans renewed their upward march.

Ludwig hopes Preston is right. But he says the U.S. response to childhood obesity falls far short of the U.S. antismoking effort.

"We continue to condone a multibillion-dollar campaign by the food industry to get children to eat the most unhealthy foods imaginable," Ludwig says. "We don't adequately fund schools, so principals have to turn to soda machines in the hallways and fast-food contracts in the cafeterias to close budget gaps. At the same time, lack of funds forces them to close afterschool activities and physical education."

The childhood obesity expert calls for a ban on food ads aimed at young children. He calls for stronger federal funding of schools -- especially for mandatory physical education programs. And he calls for federal laws to force insurance companies to pay for the treatment of childhood obesity.

But Ludwig doesn't let families off the hook.

"Parents can turn off the TV and have a family meal once a day together -- that is at least one opportunity to give children healthy food and model a healthy lifestyle," he says.

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