Bush joins new war: battle of bulge

Is the Big Mac akin to Big Tobacco?

As Americans grapple with an alarming increase in weight gain and obesity, health advocates are suggesting that federal and local governments use some of the same tools to regulate the food industry that they employed against tobacco and liquor.

By taxing soft drinks, controlling vending machines in schools, and restricting snack and other food advertising to children, they want to reverse a trend that now has 61 percent of adults overweight – with a healthcare cost to the nation of $117 billion a year.

"The kinds of things we're recommending ... sound controversial because they're new," says Margo Wootan, director of nutrition at the Center for Science in the Public Interest. "But we're just at the beginning of the obesity [battle]. In the next few years, we'll see these ideas mainstream."

The fattening of America is a concern to the Bush administration, which today is launching its "Healthier US" initiative aimed at the weight-gain challenge. At a fitness fair on the White House south lawn, President Bush will announce the revival of the President's Council on Physical Fitness, and emphasize both the importance of 30 minutes of daily physical activity for adults (60 minutes for kids), and the value of five fruits and vegetables guideline.

"A lot of it is raising awareness," says an administration official, citing a new government website on fitness, this weekend's fee-free entry to national parks, and a greater emphasis on nutrition at schools.

Though America's commander in chief is a gym rat, lifting weights almost daily and running three to four miles several times a week, it's not necessary to join a gymnasium or go on a fad diet, the White House wants to stress.

"Even modest improvements in physical activity and nutrition can have significant benefits," says the official. According to the Centers for Disease Control, 40 percent of Americans forgo any physical activity. Seven in 10 don't exercise regularly.

The administration itself makes the tobacco analogy, warning that the number of annual deaths related to a sedentary lifestyle and poor eating habits is approaching the number of tobacco-related fatalities. But even though these three categories now account for about two-thirds of the nation's premature deaths, the administration rejects the regulatory solution favored by nutrition experts like Ms. Wootan.

The difference in strategy depends on whether one views food and exercise as largely a matter of personal choice – and therefore a question of individual behavior – or whether forces beyond an individual's control are at work.

Even in the activist camp, few people are willing to make a direct correlation between tobacco and food. "It certainly is more complex," says Richard Daynard, head of the Tobacco Liability Project at Northeastern University Law School. "There's no such thing as a moderate amount of smoking. All smoking is bad," he states. Obviously, the same can't be said of eating.

But Mr. Daynard and others certainly see parallels. As tobacco companies targeted America's youth (remember Joe Camel?), so do food companies. Not only in advertising, but in placement of vending machines in schools and fast-food restaurants near school grounds.

Nor is the food industry always truthful about the content or preparation of its foods. McDonald's, for instance, was successfully sued for billing its french fries as vegetarian, even though they were cooked with beef flavoring. Mr. Daynard foresees more of this kind of court action, "particularly in the area of misrepresentation of the healthiness of different foods."

At the same time, restaurants are serving bigger portions, and fast-food places are "supersizing" everything from Cinnebon cinnamon rolls, to popcorn, to sodas. It hardly helps that the US is increasingly a TV-watching, car-driving nation with fewer sidewalks and fewer PE classes at school. (Only one state, Illinois, requires daily PE classes for grades K-12.)

"It's not going to be enough to just point your finger at the American people and say 'get to it,' " says Wootan. "We need a comprehensive strategy."

One proposal: Add a 1-or-2 cent tax on soft drinks to finance a major nutrition and exercise education campaign. The federal government spends $1 million a year to recommend fruits and vegetables to the American people. "M&Ms has a $67 million ad budget," Wootan says.

While the food industry recognizes obesity as a problem, it does not view regulation as the solution. "What you're seeing is a number of people looking at a very complex issue, and proposing some simplistic solutions," says Chip Kunde, vice president of government affairs for the Grocery Manufacturers of America.

He agrees with the White House view – a view his association helped inform – that the need is primarily for better nutrition and exercise education, and some high-profile encouragement. "It's all a matter of personal choice," Mr. Kunde says.

Sizing up America

Source: Men's Fitness magazine

'Fattest' cities:

1. Houston

2. Chicago

3. Detroit

4. Philadelphia

5. Dallas

'Fittest' cities:

1. Colorado Springs

2. Denver

3. San Diego

4. Seattle

5. San Francisco

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