- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 10, 2004

CHICAGO — Inactive Americans are eating themselves to death at an alarming rate, their unhealthy habits fast approaching tobacco as the top underlying preventable cause of death, a government study found.

In 2000, poor diet including obesity and physical inactivity caused 400,000 U.S. deaths more than 16 percent of all deaths and the No. 2 killer. That compares with 435,000 for tobacco, or 18 percent, as the top underlying killer.

The gap between the two is substantially narrower than in 1990, when poor diet and inactivity caused 300,000 deaths, 14 percent, compared with 400,000 for tobacco, or 19 percent, says a report from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“This is tragic,” said Dr. Julie Gerberding, CDC’s director and an author of the study. “Our worst fears were confirmed.”

“It’s going to overtake tobacco” if the trend continues, Dr. Gerberding said. “At CDC, we’re going to do everything we can to prevent it,” she said. “Obesity has got to be job No. 1 for us in terms of chronic diseases.”

The government is offering constructive, even lighthearted, advice to fight what it calls an epidemic of expanding waistlines. Americans will be told in a new ad campaign they can lose midsection “love handles” and double chins one step at a time if they eat less and exercise more.

“We’re just too darn fat, ladies and gentlemen, and we’re going to do something about it,” Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson said yesterday at a news conference.

The researchers analyzed data from 2000 for the leading causes of death and for those preventable factors known to contribute to them. Like tobacco, obesity and inactivity increase the risks for the top three killers: heart disease, cancer and cerebrovascular ailments, including strokes. Obesity and inactivity also strongly increase the risk of diabetes, the sixth-leading cause of death.

The results appear in today’s Journal of the American Medical Association.

Americans’ fast-food lifestyle, increased use of computers and a decline in school physical education programs all were cited by Mr. Thompson and other officials as factors contributing to the nation’s fat problem. Two out of three adults and 9 million children are overweight or obese, they said.

Rather than call for dramatic changes in diet and exercise, Mr. Thompson said Americans could begin a gradual exercise program. They could get off the bus a block farther from their homes, he said, and slowly cut back on unhealthful foods.

The new public service announcements debuted by Mr. Thompson use humor to tell people they can slowly trim their waistlines. In one ad, someone turns in a pair of love handles found near the stairs in a shopping mall. “Lots of people lose them taking the stairs instead of the escalator,” says a clerk at the lost and found.

In another ad, a shopping cart gets stuck on a double chin that someone lost near a supermarket’s fruit and vegetable display.

Mr. Thompson said President Bush would play a prominent part in the campaign, but did not elucidate.

Mr. Thompson, a fierce antismoking advocate, drew parallels between the drives to stop smoking and to get Americans to eat less and exercise more. But unlike his campaign to end smoking, he is advocating only voluntary measures at this point.

The Food and Drug Administration also is expected to issue a report on obesity later this week. The FDA has been considering whether to require restaurants to provide more nutrition information and change nutrition labels on food sold in grocery stores and other outlets to help consumers.

Mr. Thompson praised McDonald’s for its decision to end supersize fries and drinks in its more than 13,000 U.S. restaurants by year’s end, except for special promotions.

Several soft-drink makers also have announced steps to offer a larger number of healthier products.

Mr. Thompson would not take a position on the bill to be debated today in the House. It would shield restaurants and fast-food franchises from lawsuits seeking to blame them for obesity and health problems related to it. The bill was prompted by the fast-food industry’s complaints about a rash of lawsuits that fault their food for Americans’ bulging bellies.

Many states are making attempts to slow the increase in obesity among children. About two dozen of them are considering bans or limits on vending machine products in schools. Roughly 20 states already restrict students’ access to junk food until after lunch.

The Texas Agriculture Department is revamping rules on what foods public schools in the state can serve to their 4.2 million students, cutting out deep-fried foods and reducing fat and sugar in menus.

An editorial accompanying the study in JAMA says national leadership and policy changes are needed to help curb preventable causes of death.

“After all, wisdom is knowing what to do next. Virtue is doing it,” said editorial authors Dr. J. Michael McGinnis and Dr. William Foege. Dr. McGinnis is with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and Dr. Foege is with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

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