Will obesity become public policy?

Published 9:07 pm Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Americans generally and health scientists specifically are particularly concerned about the rising wave of obesity, and rightly so. It threatens the health of adults and children alike, and it is spurring health care costs dramatically upwards. Few, however, have stepped out boldly to take actions that might actually influence the sugar intake of obese people. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg may change that.

Bloomberg filed a request with the federal government Oct. 6 for approval to bar his city’s 1.7 million food stamp recipients from using the stamps to buy sodas and other sugary drinks. Bloomberg may be accused of nannyism and intrusive government meddling in personal food choices, but his proposal is perfectly sensible.

The mayor is not picking just on food stamp recipients. His latest action is part of a broad public campaign to ban smoking in public places and to tamp down obesity and its myriad related and costly diseases, which have an enormous impact on public health care costs for the indigent and those on Medicaid. He’s also pressured schools to restrict the sales of sugary drinks and unhealthy foodstuffs and sponsored advertising to persuade the public to eat healthier. He also wants to impose an additional tax on the sale of sugary drinks.

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There’s good reason for his concern about the impact of obesity. For starters, obesity is more prevalent among poorer people, who generally live in neighborhoods where healthier shopping options are limited. Grocery store chains often avoid poor neighborhoods, leaving residents to rely on small convenience stores that sell little produce, if any, and fewer healthy foods generally. …

It’s not clear that the Department of Agriculture will approve the mayor’s request. It turned down a similar request in 2004 from Minnesota Gov. Tim Palenty, who wanted to ban junk food (including sodas, candy and other sugary foods) from food stamp purchases.

But the tide may be turning. Obesity has become so prevalent and so costly, and the health science regarding its negative effects so thoroughly dire, that preventing publicly supported contributions to obesity now seems patently wise public policy. It’s past time to take sodas and junk food off the food-stamp shopping list.

-The Chattanooga, Tenn., Times