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Report Blasts Child Obesity Inaction

Fragmented, Small Efforts Not Enough to Head Off Epidemic, Say Experts
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WebMD Health News

Sept. 13, 2006 -- The Institute of Medicine (IOM) Wednesday criticized the slow progress in addressing rising childhood obesity rates, saying government, the food industry, and families are not doing enough to reverse the problem.

The nation is "beginning to grasp the severity" of childhood obesity, which now affects more than 17% of American children and adolescents, an IOM report says.

But efforts -- including increasing mandatory physical education and de-emphasizing junk food in public schools -- remain mostly "fragmented and small in scale," far short of the comprehensive action endorsed by IOM experts in 2004, it says.

Obesity rates continue to rise despite pleas from public health experts for major programs to combat the problem. Experts warn that one-fifth of U.S. kids are projected to be at risk for obesity by 2010 if current trends do not slow.

"We are still not doing enough to prevent childhood obesity, and the problem is getting worse," says Jeffrey P. Koplan, MD, chairman of a panel that wrote the report and a former director of the CDC.

The panel praised movement by industry and some state and local governments to increase chances for physical activity and encourage healthy eating over junk food.

Major beverage distributors, facing growing scrutiny from politicians and courts, agreed earlier this year to limit sales in schools to low-calorie soft drinks and juices.

But experts blamed companies, states, local authorities, and the federal government, for not coordinating their efforts.

Programs designed to combat obesity generally lack any means of measuring effectiveness.

Social Change

IOM panelist Antroinette (Toni) Yancey suggested that obesity suffers the same problem as most chronic illnesses that compete for the public's attention and the government's dollars: a long-term effect that makes them seem less urgent.

Government agencies, schools, and most parents have not yet grasped the gravity of increased rates of diabetesdiabetes, heart diseaseheart disease, and other illnesses that are sure to follow a rise in obesity.

"We need social norm change that's sweeping in this country," says Yancey, a professor at the UCLA School of Public Health.

Food producers have come under increased scrutiny for aggressive marketing of high-calorie and fat-dense food to young children. Industry groups must constantly deflect criticism that they and their products play a large role in the obesity problem.

Alison Kretser, of the Grocery Manufacturers Association, says her industry has become a leader in antiobesity efforts. Companies are in talks aimed at modifying the system of self-regulated child advertising standards. The group will also begin in-store promotions designed to steer consumers toward healthier foods.

"That's what's going to be on the weekly special -- that's what's going to be promoted," says Kretser, the group's senior director of nutritionnutrition and public policy.

But IOM experts were adamant in their view that companies and the government are not doing enough, and in some cases, are impeding effective programs.

They singled out a federal program called VERB, which used marketing to encourage kids into more physical activity. Koplan says the five-year program was proven effective, but Congress and the White House halted funding this year.

"If you had a vaccine that worked and then put it on the shelf ... people wouldn't stand for it," he says.

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