Leader Blues

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

EDITORIALS>>Arkansas fights battle of bulge

More and more Arkansas adults are getting fatter and fatter, more and more unhealthy. The trend may be affecting children, too, in spite of the state government’s efforts to stem the obesity epidemic.

That is bad news for former Gov. Mike Huckabee, who is campaigning for president partly on the claim of stupendous leadership on that front. Huckabee can crack a few jokes and divert attention from the failing, but it doesn’t work for the rest of us.

Obesity is a costly proposition, for all of us and not merely those of us who suffer from fat-related diseases like diabetes. It raises health-care costs for everyone owing to the cost shifting that is endemic to the U. S. healthcare system. Each of us is spending about $250 a year through the state Medicaid program and other government health services to treat obesity-related diseases.

Arkansas ranks sixth or seventh, depending on the year, in the percentage of adults who are obese. More than one in four Arkansans qualifies as being extremely overweight. For children, the figures are not quite as bad, about one in five. The figure inched up slightly the last school year after a couple of years of light decline.

Dr. Joe Thompson, the state surgeon general, tried to put a good twist on the latest figures this week by pointing out that fewer children last year subjected themselves to the body mass index, from which the statistics come. But the reality is probably worse, not better, than the statistics because parents of obese children might keep them home on the day of the weigh-ins to protect them from embarrassment.

Clearly, the steps that the state has taken – the body mass index, the notes to parents and light regulation of high-calorie, low-nutrition, vending-machine foods in the schools are not getting the job done. Huckabee’s personal example of weight loss and training and his occasional lecture about healthy lifestyles, while laudable, have done nothing to change the habits of people. Few states have done much more.

Obesity runs highest among the very poor. In four school districts, all in the most desperately poor areas of east and south Arkansas, more than half the children are obese, a community catastrophe in the making. Bad eating habits and lack of exercise are parallel with poor education.

There are tough steps government could take to drive down obesity, like high taxes on empty snack foods and sodas, but they are heavy-handed and of limited help. Many simply buy fewer nutritional foods.

Better would be a persistent and high-tempo educational campaign to persuade people of the grave risks of poor eating and recreational habits.

It has worked well to sharply reduce tobacco use. Poor nutrition is at least as deadly as tobacco. The state has used some of its tobacco-settlement funds to advertise the perils of smoking in collaboration with national antismoking campaigns. There could be no wiser investment of state funds than to raise the level of public fitness.
– Ernie Dumas