- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 23, 2004

Sen. Tom Harkin, in another bid to fight obesity with legislation, recently introduced a bill that would give tax breaks to companies with exercise rooms and grants to schools that get rid of their vending machines.

The Iowa Democrat last week introduced the comprehensive health-reform bill that would cost $5 billion a year. Mr. Harkin plans to fund the initiative mainly through fines for tobacco companies and taking away certain tax advantages for the industry.

The bill tacked on several obesity-relatedmeasures he had introduced earlier this session.

Among other things, the bill would:

• Give the U.S. Food and Drug Administration authority to regulate tobacco.

• Allow the Agriculture Department secretary to ban food marketing and advertising in schools participating in the government’s school lunch and breakfast programs.

• Give the Federal Trade Commission the authority to regulate advertising to children.

• Require chain restaurants, with 20 or more locations, to provide nutritional labeling on menus or menu boards.

While several provisions give greater power to federal agencies, the bill focuses primarily on tax breaks and grants.

Under the bill, schools get grants for creating healthy environments. This includes offering mental health counseling and physical activity programs and getting rid of vending machines or fatty a la carte items.

Additionally, the bill would expand Mr. Harkin’s fruits and vegetables program, which provides free fruits and vegetables to schools. The program is currently active in 25 schools.

Communities would get grants for putting more bike paths and sidewalks along roads while businesses would get tax breaks for paying for employee health-club memberships or having an on-site workout facility.

Medicare physicians also would get full reimbursement for prescribing preventative health measures such as exercise and substance-abuse programs, nutritional counseling and mental health screening.

Mr. Harkin said in a conference call yesterday that he does not expect the bill, which has no co-sponsors in Congress, to get much traction before the current legislative session ends July 31. He plans to reintroduce the bill in the next session.

The projected $5 billion cost for the bill would be paid by repealing tax deductions for the tobacco industry, closing unspecified tax loopholes and fining the tobacco industry if juvenile smoking doesn’t decline.

For example, a 5 percent or less reduction of youth smokers would incur a $6 billion fine on the industry, Mr. Harkin said.

Critics in the food and restaurant industries have called for more personal responsibility and less government interference in lowering U.S. rates for obesity, the second-largest preventable cause of death after smoking.

“I believe in personal responsibility, but we have to look at what’s happening. We have a major public health crisis” that the government must respond to, Mr. Harkin said.

Mr. Harkin said he hoped the bill’s emphasis on tax breaks and would get it through Congress with greater ease.

His recent bills for menu labeling in restaurants and altering school vending machines have been stalled in Senate committees.

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