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Get Creative in Fighting Fat

March 11, 2004

A bill to bar lawsuits against fast-food chains for obesity-related health problems passed the House of Representatives on Wednesday, and its backers have a good point. No amount of legislative or judicial pressure can force people to exercise responsibility over their and their children's bodies.

Legislators are not eager to go after fast-food industry profits in the way that state and federal prosecutors have done with the tobacco industry. Tobacco contains addictive chemicals. The link to cancer and heart disease is strong. A Snickers bar, a Pepsi and a stuffed pizza don't produce the same smoking-equals-death equation.

Still, a study released Tuesday shows government can't completely avoid the fray.

The report, by top U.S. health experts including Julie Gerberding, director of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, names obesity brought on by poor diet and lack of exercise as a leading cause of preventable deaths in the United States, nearly pushing tobacco aside for the No. 1 spot. At the least, the report should prompt smarter spending of tax dollars aimed at combating obesity, which accounted for 400,000 deaths in 2000, or about 16.6% of total deaths.

The Bush administration proposes to fatten the $379 million the National Institutes of Health spent studying obesity last year to $400 million this year. The obvious question is: What's left to study?

Couldn't the dollars be better spent on something other than gazing at our navels, assuming we can still find them? How about extra funding for school districts that preserve or expand playgrounds and pull out soda and candy machines? Or assistance to develop more healthful, tastier school lunches? Or funds to hire back the physical education teachers laid off in the last few years? Or sports programs that would allow children in high-crime and often park-starved neighborhoods to play outside in safety?

Schools, of course, aren't the only source of obesity. Its roots range from overworked, underpaid and sometimes self-absorbed parents to congressional subsidies for sugar producers.

It wouldn't hurt if more responsibility was assumed not only by parents who let their kids watch too many TV ads hawking super-sized fast food but by the marketing executives who produced the ads and the Federal Communications Commission officials who let them appear during children's hours.

There's no substitute for healthful meals and parental responsibility, but the forces working against families and children have grown overwhelming.

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