Congressional Health Bills Confront Obesity

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Melissa Block talks to Jeff Levi, executive director of Trust for America's Health, about what provisions in the congressional health bills will deal with obesity. He says that in the bills, there are provisions that offer counseling in a clinical setting about obesity. There are also grants for a community prevention program to promote healthy living, as well as mandates for chain restaurants to provide nutritional labeling for the food they serve.


As we just heard, the rise in obesity has slowed. But still, two-thirds of American adults are overweight or obese, and the cost of treating conditions associated with all those extra pounds is soaring. We wondered what's in the pending health care legislation that deals with the obesity epidemic.

And to find out, we turn now to Jeffrey Levi. He's executive director of Trust for America's Health. That's a nonprofit group dedicated to health and disease prevention.

Mr. Levi, welcome to the program.

Dr. JEFFREY LEVI (Executive Director, Trust for America's Health): Thank you.

BLOCK: And what are the public health components in the health care bills that are specifically designed to target obesity?

Dr. LEVI: Both the House and the Senate bills offer the potential for a comprehensive approach to address obesity. Everything from counseling about obesity in the clinical setting to community prevention programs; changing norms, providing opportunities for people to be more physically active, to promote healthier nutrition so that in every community across the country we can take a targeted approach to increasing physical activity and improving nutrition and therefore change the policies, change people's attitudes and result in major change.

We've got plenty of evidence-based approaches that have been proven scientifically to achieve these behavior changes, and we just need to invest in them to help them happen.

BLOCK: You say they've been proven scientifically to actually lead to change. There is an editorial in the medical journal, published along with the studies today, that says past efforts to promote lifestyle change to encourage weight reduction have been disappointing, that maybe this doesn't work so well.

Mr. LEVI: Well, we've never really invested in the kinds of changes that are needed, and these changes don't happen overnight. Look at what happened with smoking. It was education campaigns combined with clinical interventions combined with social marketing, essentially, that changed norms in communities that resulted in this dramatic reduction that we've seen in smoking.

We can do the same for obesity by increasing physical activity and improving nutrition, but we can't do it overnight, and we can't do it without a significant investment. And we also can't do it without some policy changes. And both the House and the Senate bill, for example, mandate menu labeling in restaurants and fast food outlets, giving people the information they need to be able to embrace these norm changes so they can make the healthier decisions.

We place a lot of obstacles in people's way to make the healthy choices. Americans know what they need to do; we just need to create the environment that makes it easier for them to do it.

BLOCK: What do you think - a massive public health campaign to raise awareness about the dangers of obesity, what would that campaign look like?

Mr. LEVI: Well, I think it's less an advertising campaign, though that is part of it, but more about how we change our attitudes about walking, about being physically active, about what we eat and how we eat.

But there isn't a one-size-fits-all approach, and different communities are going to have different needs. You know, one of the things that's very telling in the information that was released today is that there are tremendous disparities around obesity.

African-Americans are more likely to be obese or overweight. And when you look deeper, you will also find that obesity tends to be more associated with poverty. Well, if you live in a poor neighborhood that doesn't have a grocery store, that doesn't have access to safe streets and safe places to be physically active, it's not surprising, then, that you're going to see higher obesity and overweight rates.

BLOCK: That also, I think, ties in with the question of food production and the economics behind that. In other words, are high food prices, especially for healthier foods, making it harder for families to eat well and eat healthfully?

Mr. LEVI: Sure. And certainly in this recession, I think there's a lot of concern about how much harder it is to eat healthy.

BLOCK: Jeffrey Levi, thank you for talking with us.

Mr. LEVI: Thank you.

BLOCK: Jeffrey Levi is executive director of Trust for America's Health, where he leads the organization's advocacy efforts on behalf of a modernized public health system.

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