Obesity experts warn of 'ticking time bomb'; Taxing high-fat foods among solutions proposed at public policy conference


WASHINGTON -- Calling the vast numbers of overweight Americans a "ticking time bomb in the health care system," obesity experts charged yesterday that the government has ignored this epidemic too long.

Many who gathered here for the first conference on obesity and public policy proposed radical solutions.

Among them: taxing high-fat foods, lengthening the school day to give children more exercise, making insurers cover weight-loss programs and spending a lot more money to research the causes of obesity.

More than half of adult Americans -- about 97 million -- are estimated to be overweight. Of those, 39 million are considered obese, or more than 30 pounds overweight. More than 20 percent of children are overweight, a number that has doubled in recent decades.

Extra pounds contribute to 300,000 deaths each year. The annual cost of treating health problems related to obesity has been estimated at $100 billion.

"While we have this two-day meeting, 1,800 people will be dead from problems related to obesity," said Judith S. Stern, a professor of nutrition at the University of California at Davis and vice president of the American Obesity Association. "This is a national emergency."

Stern said her organization would push Congress for a fivefold increase in funding for obesity research at the National Institutes of Health, which spends $103 million on it each year.

"That sounds like a lot of money, but it's barely $1.10 per person who's overweight," Stern said.

Surgeon General David Satcher is already convinced. "Obesity is a major public health problem in this country and one that deserves much more attention than it receives," he said yesterday.

American adults and children are far less active than they used to be. One study showed that the more television children watch, the fatter they are likely to be.

Peter Stearns, a social historian at Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh, theorizes that eating has become a psychological release for an overstressed society.

Of particular concern to researchers are some minority groups -- including blacks, Hispanics, Native Americans and Pacific Islanders -- who are far more likely to be overweight than whites.

"It's becoming a worldwide epidemic, affecting all countries and all ethnicities," said June Stevens, an associate professor of nutrition at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. "I'm wondering where the ceiling is."

Some experts said much work is needed to combat the social stigma and discrimination overweight Americans face. While obesity has been considered a medical condition since 1985, many people -- including physicians -- consider it an issue of lack of control.

Said Dr. Richard L. Atkinson, a professor of medicine and nutrition at the University of Wisconsin and president of the American Obesity Association, "It's painful to be fat in America."

Pub Date: 9/16/99

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