- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 17, 2011

New York City is pouring hundreds of thousands of federal dollars into television ads telling people they’re better off knocking back a glass of seltzer water or fat-free milk than chugging a soda — part of hundreds of millions of dollars from President Obama’s economic stimulus package devoted to getting Americans to change their behavior by eating more veggies, kicking cigarettes and picking up dumbbells.

In the latest spot, part of a $870,000 stimulus-funded “Pouring on the Pounds” campaign, a narrator warns that while it may seem harmless to have “midmorning soda, a sweetened tea at lunch, a frozen coffee drink in the afternoon and a couple of sodas at dinner” - but it’s not.

“That many drinks a day can add up to a lot of extra calories and all that sugar can bring on serious health problems, including obesity, which causes type 2 diabetes, heart disease and even some cancers,” the narrator intones over images of a gangrene-infected foot and a paramedic attempting to shock an overweight man back to life with defibrillator pads.

Backers say the campaign is a worthy use of federal money that will pay off in a healthier population. But opponents called it a “grotesque” use of taxpayer dollars that has little to do with getting the economy back on track — the stated goal of the stimulus.

The clash is just one of many as supporters and opponents of Mr. Obama’s $814 billion stimulus package mark Friday’s second anniversary of its passage still sharply divided over its merits.

The New York grants are part of a broader health initiative playing out in more than 40 small towns and big cities, thanks to $373 million in taxpayer-funded Communities Putting Prevention to Work (CPPW) grants in the stimulus law.

The grants also are being used to promote tobacco-free environments, exercise programs and better nutrition.

“Pouring on the Pounds,” orchestrated by the New York Department of Health, also features posters on subway cars that picture the number of sugar packets in different types of drinks.

Despite glowing reviews from grant recipients, the CPPW grants, $31.1 million of which were awarded to New York, have caused some heartburn in the food industry and among lawmakers who see it as a classic example of government overreach.

“All across the country, Americans are growing increasingly concerned about the role of government, and it’s believed by a substantial population in this country that the government is overreaching its bounds and getting too involved in our personal lives,” said Christopher Gindlesperger, a spokesman for the American Beverage Association. “People are able to make their own choices about what they eat and drink — they don’t need government telling them what to eat or drink.”

Since taking office in 2009, Mr. Obama has given the federal government a bigger role in promoting healthy eating habits in an attempt to help prevent heart attacks, diabetes and other serious health problems, arguing that the effort can improve lives and help reduce the rising health care costs.

First lady Michelle Obama has adopted as her signature issue reducing childhood obesity rates with her “Let’s Move” program.

Scott Faber, vice president for federal affairs for the Grocery Manufacturers Association, a food industry trade organization, said there’s an ongoing debate in the administration over whether “we should trust consumers to make the healthy choices or whether we should make the choice for consumers by taxing food, restricting food choices and by demonizing certain foods.”

“To their credit, the administration has not tried to dictate how food should be made or marketed, but worked with the industry to help make more information available to consumers about what’s inside our products,” he said, while applauding Mrs. Obama’s “Let’s Move” program.

But asked about New York’s “Pouring on the Pounds” campaign, Mr. Faber said, “Scare tactics are not the most effective way to help consumers build healthy diets.”

“I think this advertisement suggests that Congress should give much greater scrutiny to how grant funds are being used once they’ve been distributed to states, cities and local organizations to see whether they are effective,” he said.

Many conservatives have slammed the whole grant program as a government intrusion into private decisions, one that gives local cities and organizations a financial incentive to pry.

Phil Kerpen, director of policy for Americans for Prosperity, wrote last year that the CPPW grants amounted to “a sweeping micromanagement of our lives that we didn’t vote for, made even worse by the fact that it’s being funded by stimulus money that was supposed to put people other than lobbyists back to work.”

Despite the criticism, Zoe Tobin, a spokeswoman for the New York City Health Department, suggested that taxpayers are getting a good bang for their buck from the ad because “obesity-related illness costs New York State residents nearly $8 billion in medical costs each year.”

Other CPPW grant winners gave the effort positive reviews.

Beth Morris, director of community health partnerships at Columbus Regional Hospital in Bartholomew County, Ind., said the county’s $2.1 million CPPW grant has helped pay for “evidence-based strategies for changing policy, environment and systems to make it easier to make healthy choices.”

The grant money has helped the hospital lower the costs of having healthy food options in its vending machines and underwritten its ability to start offering a daily healthy meal option at a reduced cost. The money also has helped pay for posting signs by elevators “that encourage people to take the stairs instead of the elevator.”

“The choices people make are limited to the choices they are given,” Ms. Morris said.

Lillian Rivera, a health department administrator in Miami-Dade County, Fla., said the department recently allocated some of the $14.7 million CPPW grant for a media campaign. Starting as early as March, 46 schools in the county will receive new vending machines equipped to offer students healthier food options, such as apples.

“In our younger population, we have seen an increase in our children in their obesity rates,” she said. “We want to reverse that trend.”

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