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Fighting Fat, One State at a Time

Posted - Aug. 22, 2003 at 6:40 a.m.



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Knight Ridder Newspapers

(KRT)

PHILADELPHIA - Obesity is big this year in state legislatures.

From Augusta, Maine, to Sacramento, Calif., the number of bills and resolutions targeting the nation's fat epidemic has more than doubled in a year.

They include such proposals as taxing movie tickets to pay for fat-fighting programs, beefing up physical education in the schools and requiring restaurants to offer healthy options on children's menus.

America's growing girth has emerged as a major public-health problem, with increasing evidence of its grave medical and financial consequences.

About 30 percent of adults and 15 percent of children are seriously overweight - at least twice the percentage who met that threshold 25 years ago.

Fat Americans are at a higher risk of developing many diseases, from diabetes to heart problems and some cancers.

A recent study in the journal Health Affairs estimated the nation spends up to $93 billion a year treating people who are overweight.

"It is the hot issue of the day," said Deirdre Byrne, a policy analyst for the National Conference of State Legislatures, which tracks obesity bills. "It is significant that so many states have taken it up in legislation."

At least 179 bills or resolutions mentioning obesity have been introduced in state legislatures since January, up from 72 last year, Byrne said. Proposals have been made in 41 states.

In the Pennsylvania House, for instance, a new bill would require many chain restaurants to display nutrition information on menus and take-out packages.

"Being conscious of what is in food, in my opinion, has become very `in' now," said Pennsylvania State Rep. Louise Williams Bishop, who cosponsored the bill last month. "People want to know what's in the food. They are counting calories to make sure they keep their weight down. I am coming from a weight perspective and health perspective."

"Many of these bills are as important for what they represent as what they can actually accomplish," said Kelly Brownell, director of the Yale Center for Eating and Weight Disorders. "The fact these are even part of the public discourse is a sign that there is very real concern about obesity, and people want something done about it."

Obesity has been the subject of bills in Washington this year, too. Similar versions of a bill introduced in the Senate and the House would fund $60 million in grants next year for school health programs, physician training, nutrition education campaigns and research.

The flurry of legislation has some food-industry officials concerned.

"Clearly, when you have this much legislation introduced, it tells you two things," said Gene Grabowski, a vice president at the Grocery Manufacturers of America. "It is an issue on voters' minds, and there are going to be excesses."

His group is particularly concerned about state efforts to add or increase a tax on snack food, saying it has been a "nightmare to implement."

"Where do you draw the line?" he asked. "Does it apply to a breakfast bar as well as a cookie?"

A number of states already impose such taxes to typically raise money for the state's general fund. But they haven't stopped the prevalence of obesity from climbing, Grabowski said.

Brownell, the Yale eating-disorders expert, supported such taxes to combat obesity. While a penny tax might not deter people from consuming soft drinks or snacks, he said, it would generate more than $1 billion a year. "You can do a lot of advertising and promotion for healthy foods for that amount," Brownell said.

Of the 179 bills in the states, Byrne said, more than one-third attempt to set standards on food and drinks sold in schools. In Minnesota, one proposal would use market forces to encourage children to buy healthy beverages by making them cheaper than non-nutritional drinks, according to Byrne's report.

Physical education also is getting a once-over by lawmakers. At least 15 states tried this year to address obesity by beefing up PE, Byrne said. A bill in Hawaii, for instance, would require 200 minutes of physical education every 10 school days for elementary students - and 400 minutes every 10 school days for upper-grade students.

Because the rates of type 2 diabetes are escalating so rapidly, California and Illinois are examining proposals to screen students identified at risk for the disease, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures' report.

Of the bills tracked, however, only 16 have been adopted, according to Byrne. And they largely involve creating task forces to assess the problem. (New Jersey has one such bill pending.)

"The goal is not to study and say there is a problem," said Maine Rep. Sean Faircloth, who introduced a bill to create a commission to study public health. The goal is to come up with "specific proposals to address the issue."

The new Maine commission is expected to report its findings by December, Faircloth said.

In New York, Assemblyman Felix Ortiz has been introducing bills to upgrade physical education in schools, require restaurant nutrition labeling and put a small tax - a penny or less per dollar - on movie tickets, video games, DVD rentals and some snacks and drinks. He said the taxes would raise about $50 million to help fund obesity-prevention efforts.

"This bill isn't about taxing," Ortiz said in a statement after introducing a bill last month. "It is about preventing a teen-ager from needing a daily insulin injection or a third-grader from being taunted about their appearance, and preventing health-insurance premiums from skyrocketing."

Byrne said the bills were "setting a tone" for the states.

"I don't know that they are ready to drastically commit to a certain approach until they know they will make a tangible impact on people's health and stem the epidemic of obesity," she said.

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AMONG THE BILLS OR RESOLUTIONS INTRODUCED THIS YEAR:

Study child and/or adult obesity: 

Ill., N.Y., Maine, Miss. Texas, N.J., R.I., Mo. Require restaurant chains to provide nutritional information:

Calif., Maine, New York, Pa., Texas

Develop diabetes-screening program for children:

Calif., Ill.

Impose or broaden sales tax on soft drinks or syrups:

Ark., Idaho, Maine, Neb., N.M., N.C., Okla., Vt., W.Va.

Adjust tax on food items:

Ark., Ga., R.I., Tenn. Neb., N.Y., Wash.

Examine or adjust nutritional content of school meals:

Calif., Conn., Hawaii, Ill., Ky. Maine, Mass., Mich., Mo., N.Y., Tenn. Texas, Vt., Wash.

Ban or limit junk food in vending and/or schools:

Ark., Calif., Hawaii, Maine, Mass., Mich., Minn., N.Y., Okla., Ore., S.C., Tenn., Texas, Vt., Wash.

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Source: National Conference of State Legislatures

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(c) 2003, The Philadelphia Inquirer. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.

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