Government role aids in obesity fight

In a basketball game, nothing shuts down cheering fans like a timely three-point shot by the opponents.

Here's hoping the news last week that obesity has fallen among New York City students following an aggressive effort by the city and the schools will take some of the volume out of people who argue that government should just stay out of kids' diets.

Obesity has fallen 5.5 percent over five years among school children in New York City. In the same period, the city has waged an aggressive advertising campaign against sugary sodas, instituted strict rules on calorie and sugar content of snacks and drinks in vending machines, added healthier options to school lunch menus and even put limits on bake sales.

Researchers are reluctant to say there's a direct cause-and-effect relationship between government's intervention and the decline in obesity, but the fact remains that while obesity rates elsewhere continue on the same upward trajectory they've followed for 30 years, fewer New York City kids are fat than five years ago.

The greatest improvement was among younger children and those who are white and middle-class, but obesity declined across all ages, family incomes and ethnic groups.

The biggest declines were among the youngest children. This isn't surprising because it is much easier to avoid gaining weight than to lose it and keep it off. But it is significant because it shows the importance of helping even very young children develop good eating and exercise habits.

Obese children are likely to become obese adults and even as young people they are less healthy than their peers.

The Centers for Disease Control (http://www.cdc.gov/healthyyouth/obesity/facts.htm) lays out the current and future risks: heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, a wide range of cancers, sleep apnea, bone and joint problems and arthritis as well as dangerous self-esteem issues.

In Kentucky, we have to take this seriously. The 2007 National Survey of Children's Health found that among children 10 to 17 years old (an older group than those in New York) 37.1 percent in Kentucky were overweight or obese, compared to 31.6 percent nationally.

That year, Kentucky ranked 48th among states on this indicator, an uptick from 2003 when we were 50th.

So, Kentucky has made some progress, relatively speaking. We've limited the access school children have to the least healthy, highest-calorie vending machine food and drink, and communities throughout the state are working to provide safe, inviting places to exercise.

But a couple of legislative initiatives that could help stem this tide of obesity have stalled in recent sessions. Last year, a bill to require chains with more than 20 restaurants to list calorie information on menus did not pass. This is a very basic thing in a country where half of all food dollars are spent eating out.

Information is power, and experience in other states shows that many people make healthier choices when they have a chance to know the difference.

On the other side of this equation, burning calories, Kentucky has also been slow to require meaningful physical activity for students. Schools are asked to do too much with too little but physical activity isn't an "extra." Children who are active learn better, present fewer behavioral problems, are healthier and will be healthier adults.

Obesity is an epidemic that takes a huge toll on individuals, families and public funds. Here's the message for the General Assembly as it prepares for the 2012 session: Government can, and must, take a leadership role in turning the tide.