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Curbing Obesity Epidemic Key to Health Care Reform: Experts

Overweight is major contributing factor for chronic disease, U.S. health groups say

FRIDAY, Sept. 11 (HealthDay News) -- A diverse alliance of payer, provider and consumer organizations, girded by two former U.S. Surgeons General, on Wednesday urged policymakers to address the nation's obesity epidemic as part of federal health care reform legislation.

"At this critical juncture where we're dealing with health-care transformation, we want to make sure that the federal government and our elected leaders recognize the importance of including approaches to obesity that are evidence-based and proven within their legislative strategy," former Surgeon General Dr. Richard Carmona told reporters during a media briefing.

Carmona serves as the health and wellness chairperson of the Strategies to Overcome and Prevent (STOP) Obesity Alliance, whose steering committee includes the American Diabetes Association, American Heart Association and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Division of Nutrition, Physical Activity and Obesity, among other public and private organizations.

The alliance is funded by drug makers Sanofi-Aventis U.S. L.L.C. and Amylin Pharmaceuticals.

Former Surgeon General Dr. David Satcher, whose 2001 report on obesity recognized the problem as an "epidemic," emphasized the need to invest in health promotion and disease prevention, particularly for the health of the nation's youth.

"We are in essence addicting our children to sedentary lifestyles; we're addicting them to high-salt, high-sweet, high-fat diets," he said, "and then we pay for it later on when they come to us with cancer, heart disease, [and] diabetes."

America's weight problem is pervasive. Two-thirds of the population is now overweight and obese, according to the CDC, and as many as 72 million adults are considered obese. In fact, obesity rates have doubled for adults and tripled for children since 1980.

People often see obesity as a personal failure, explained Christine C. Ferguson, director of the alliance and a research professor at George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services, in Washington, D.C. "The result is the problem has gotten worse and worse, and more and more expensive."

Obesity accounts for 9.1 percent of annual health-care spending in the United States, or nearly $150 billion annually, according to a study in a recent issue of Health Affairs.

To help arrest the epidemic, the alliance urges policymakers to include four specific elements in health reform:

  • Recognize proven clinical interventions. Studies demonstrate, for example, that shedding just 5 percent to 10 percent of body weight can lower the risk of heart disease and other chronic conditions.
  • Enhance the use of preventive services. The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends obesity screening for all adults, yet studies show height and weight data often is not recorded during an office visit.
  • Foster community programs and polices that encourage and support healthy lifestyles. A community might design public spaces that accommodate walkers and bikers, for example, or sponsor a farmer's market to make fresh produce available to local residents.
  • Coordinate research efforts to improve the quality of care, show which interventions work in various settings and translate science into practice.

Morgan Downey, the alliance's policy adviser, noted one positive aspect of health reform proposals from the House of Representatives and Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee: They eliminate the worry that overweight Americans might not be able to obtain health insurance coverage because of preexisting health conditions.

"Just the removal of that language really frees up individuals who are overweight or obese to have access to health insurance," he said.

More information

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more on overweight and obesity in the United States.

SOURCES: Sept. 9, 2009, teleconference with Richard Carmona, M.D., former surgeon general and health and wellness chairperson, Strategies to Overcome and Prevent (STOP) Obesity Alliance; Christine C. Ferguson, J.D., director, STOP, and research professor, George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services, Washington, D.C.; David Satcher, M.D., Ph.D., former surgeon general, director, The Satcher Health Leadership Institute and Center of Excellence on Health Disparities, Morehouse School of Medicine, Atlanta, Ga.; Morgan Downey, J.D., policy adviser, STOP

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