- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 3, 2005

Researchers and public health advocates agreed yesterday that efforts by the federal government and food industry to encourage healthier lifestyles have not slowed the escalating trend of obesity in Americans.

But the nutritional experts, speaking at a panel held at the American Enterprise Institute, differed on whom to blame or how to handle America’s weight problem, which some have called an “epidemic.”

Food industry officials have sought to head off government regulation and litigation with voluntary menu changes and labeling. The panel came after a recent decision by the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to reinstate part of a lawsuit against McDonald’s Corp. The suit was brought by New York teenagers who said McDonald’s food and its misleading advertisements caused their obesity.

Some economists blamed declining food prices, more ready-to-eat food products, and a shift to more sedentary employment for expanding waistlines.

“We were paid in the past to exercise as part of our job, but now that has flipped and we are the ones paying to exercise,” said Tomas Philipson, a University of Chicago professor and adviser to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

The reality of more women in the work force also has altered how families, often strapped for time, are getting their meals — with many families opting for restaurant and ready-made meals, said Jonathan Klick, a Florida State University assistant law professor.

While acknowledging some accomplishments by the government and private sector to combat obesity, Northeastern University professor Richard Daynard stressed that nutritional labeling on restaurant menus and stricter regulation on advertising to children are needed.

He suggested that a tax on “unhealthy” food and litigation against restaurants and food manufacturers also may help reduce consumption of fatty foods.

Alison Rein, assistant director for food and health policy for the National Consumers League, said the obesity problem also stems from heavy advertising from the food industry, primarily with ads targeting children.

About 15 percent of American children are overweight, while 64 percent of U.S. adults are overweight or obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Ms. Rein said state and federal governments have not placed enough emphasis on health and nutrition education.

Obese (very fat) people have pushed up health care costs while cutting into the work force’s full production potential, said Ms. Rein.

Mr. Philipson and other economists countered that obese people, like smokers, tend to die younger than the rest of the population, costing the government health care dollars but saving on Social Security pensions.

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