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Mar. 10--WASHINGTON -- Obesity-related deaths rose by 33 percent over the past decade and obesity may soon overtake tobacco as a leading preventable cause of death in the United States, the government said in a study released Tuesday.
"The increase in America's waistlines is shrinking our lifelines," Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson said Tuesday. "We've just gotten too darn fat, ladies and gentlemen, and we are going to do something about it."
He cited a study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that found 400,000 deaths in the U.S. in 2000 were related to poor diet and physical inactivity. A decade earlier, 300,000 deaths nationwide were attributed to obesity.
Tobacco, which caused 435,000 deaths in 2000, may not be the leading killer for long, said Dr. Julie Gerberding, director of the CDC and an author of the study.
In fact, Gerberding said that because the study is based on data from 2000, obesity-related deaths may have already surpassed tobacco-related deaths. She also noted that obesity may have much broader negative effects, short of death, on the quality of life of millions of Americans.
Thompson announced that Health and Human Services is sponsoring a national ad campaign to encourage Americans to eat less and exercise more.
In recent years health and government officials have warned that obesity is becoming a growing public health threat. According to government statistics, an estimated 129.6 million Americans -- 64 percent -- are overweight or obese.
In addition, the National Institutes of Heath has begun a research effort to better understand, prevent and treat obesity.
Though obesity is not generally listed as a leading cause of death, the new government study analyzed mortality data to compute the number of deaths from ailments such as heart attack, cancer and stroke in which obesity was an underlying cause.
The study concluded that about half of all deaths in the U.S. in 2000 could be attributed to "a limited number of largely preventable behaviors," such as smoking, alcohol consumption and firearms. But the authors said "the most striking finding was the substantial increase in number of estimated deaths attributable to poor diet and physical inactivity."
The number of obesity-related deaths, 400,000, represented 17 percent of all deaths in 2000. The study is being published in this week's edition of the Journal of the American Medical Association.
Experts cite various causes for the obesity epidemic, ranging from super-size portions at fast-food restaurants to lack of physical activity. In a handful of unsuccessful lawsuits against McDonald's, customers have alleged that the restaurant chain's meals made them fat.
The House on Wednesday is expected to pass a bill -- the "cheeseburger bill" -- that would protect fast-food restaurants from such lawsuits. A matching bill has been introduced in the Senate but has not yet been brought up for a vote.
The ad campaign Thompson announced Tuesday will encourage families to take small, manageable steps to improve their fitness. Thompson said the government is more likely to have success persuading people to take small actions like doing yard work or avoiding eating late at night, rather than drastic changes like joining a health club.
The effort has little funding and is relying on the generosity of the media to donate time or space as part of a public service campaign.
The ads will begin appearing on television this week, said Peggy Conlon, president of the Advertising Council.
Thompson said the food and restaurant industry has been receptive to HHS' suggestions for making their products and menus more conducive to good health. He noted that the removal by McDonald's of super-size fries and drinks from its menu is just one of the ways restaurants are reacting to America's growing obesity problem, a problem that he said cost society $117 billion in 2000 through medical costs and loss of productivity.
The possible savings for companies that encourage employees to exercise and eat right is considerable, Thompson said. He is encouraging employers to put music, better lighting and colorful paint or pictures in stairwells to make the stairs a more attractive option than elevators.
Thompson also suggested that a tax break might be appropriate for people who are losing weight, but he did not elaborate. He also said insurance companies should offer reduced rates for healthy people, much as car insurance companies offer discounted rates for good drivers.
Some critics complained that the Bush administration is offering small solutions to a huge problem.
Margo Wootan, nutrition policy director at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said, "The Bush administration's response is more talk and no real help for the millions of Americans who would like to eat better and watch their weight."
She argued that the administration should take broader steps such as banning junk food from schools and mandating calorie labeling at restaurants.
"The administration expresses appropriate concern about obesity, but its actions often fall flat," Wootan said in a statement. "These innocuous half-steps make for good press releases but bad public health policy."
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