A panel of U.S. public health experts says the country's epidemic of childhood obesity threatens to set back the medical advances that have decreased child mortality and extended life spans in the past century. The panel recommends that every sector of the nation work to reverse the rapid rise in youth obesity as ambitiously as anti-smoking efforts.
The expert recommendations come in response to a request from Congress, which is seeking ways to reverse the overweight epidemic lest it become an unrelenting health burden to the country. Since the 1970s, the prevalence of obesity has more than doubled among U.S. pre-school children and teenagers and more than tripled for youth aged six to 11.
"These trends mirror a profound increase in obesity among adult Americans as well as a concurrent rise internationally in both developed and developing countries," said Jeffrey Koplan.
Dr. Jeffrey Koplan, vice president for health affairs at Emory University in Atlanta, is chairman of the expert panel appointed to study the problem by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences. Summarizing the panel's new report, Dr. Koplan says reversing the obesity epidemic will require a multifaceted approach by schools, families, communities, the food and entertainment industries, and governments at all levels.
"This report is calling for fundamental changes in our society," he said. "This is a collective responsibility and we as a nation need to move toward a healthier environment in which our children and youth can grow up."
The panel calls on schools to improve the nutrition of the food they serve and require at least 30 minutes of student physical activity a day. The report says parents should encourage physical activity by reducing their children's' television and computer time, and communities should provide more recreational facilities.
It says the food and entertainment industries, which spend more than $10 billion a year marketing high calorie foods to children, should adopt voluntary advertising guidelines limiting this exposure. It asks Congress to give the government authority to require compliance with such marketing guidelines.
The experts estimate the current annual U.S. health care costs of adult obesity are between $100 and $130 billion because of the heart disease, diabetes, and other diseases to which it contributes. One panel member, Dr. Thomas Robinson of the Stanford University School of Medicine in California, says these costs could soar if today's obese children become fat adults.
"Many of us are extremely scared about what is going to happen in the future to children's health because of this," said Thomas Robinson. "We're looking at the adult chronic diseases start to enter into the teen years and into childhood. As pediatricians and family health care physicians and other child health care providers, we're really not, in many ways, equipped to try and address this morbidity in the population as a whole."
The panel chairman, Dr. Koplan, says the cost of implementing its recommendations would be small compared to the immensity of the health costs if they are not put into effect.