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Michelle Obama's common-sense healthcare advice is the real Obamacare

The first lady is promoting her Let's Move campaign, a national initiative to get kids to eat better, exercise more and spend less time in front of the TV.

June 21, 2011|David Lazarus
  • First lady Michelle Obama visits CentroNia, a child-care facility in Washington, where she announced Let's Move Child Care, an effort to raise awareness of the need for healthy eating and living for young children.
First lady Michelle Obama visits CentroNia, a child-care facility in Washington,… (Charles Dharapak, Associated…)

Big props to the Los Angeles Unified School District for doing away with chocolate milk and other sweetened drinks. The district is now a full-fledged practitioner of Obamacare.

No, not that Obamacare. The other one.

President Obama deserves credit for taking a leadership role in promoting healthcare reform. But the complexity of our medical system is such that no one person can solve all our problems. "Obamacare" is thus a misnomer when it comes to making the necessary political, economic and regulatory fixes.

If you want to talk about the real Obamacare, it's not what the president's been focusing on. Rather, it's what his wife, First Lady Michelle Obama, has been doing.

As a federal appeals court was wrestling the other day with the legality of requiring people to buy health insurance, the first lady was visiting a Washington child-care center to promote a national initiative to get kids to eat better, exercise more and spend less time in front of the tube.

Obama said such modest steps could help counter a doubling of obesity rates among young people in recent years.

"These are small, basic, simple things that people have to reincorporate into our lives at every level because what we have learned is that if our kids get into the habit of getting up and playing again, and turning off the TV … if they relearn how to do that, that's a good thing," she said.

A very good thing. One reason healthcare costs are soaring is because we're fatter and less fit than we used to be. About 17% of U.S. kids and adolescents ages 2 to 19 are obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That's 12.5 million children.

It's even worse for grown-ups. More than a third of U.S. adults, or about 72 million people, are obese. This has led to higher rates of diabetes, heart disease and other life-threatening (and costly) ailments.

Such developments have enormous consequences for ratepayers and taxpayers. The millions of uninsured people who turn to emergency care for treatment cause insurance premiums to rise for those with coverage and higher taxes to subsidize hospitals.

The United States' spending on healthcare is about twice as much per person as in countries like Britain, France and Germany. But Americans' life expectancy is shorter, and we have a higher rate of infant mortality — indicators that we're not getting as much bang for our healthcare bucks.

Robin Schepper, executive director of the first lady's Let's Move campaign, said obesity-related healthcare costs run about $147 billion a year. She said the first lady isn't trying to reinvent the wheel when it comes to addressing this problem.

"What the first lady is doing is tapping into what we all know as parents," Schepper told me.

The healthcare reform law seeks to address the shameful problem of 50 million people lacking insurance in one of the wealthiest nations in the world and to chip away at rising medical costs.

But if we're really going to improve Americans' health, we're going to have to address the behaviors that contribute to our growing health problems. The first lady is on the right track: We need to eat better and get more exercise, and not allow our digital toys to turn us into sofa spuds.

We also need to recognize that our increasingly sedentary lives don't accommodate the same levels of calorie consumption once required to fuel human activities — like, say, when we had to outrun saber-toothed tigers or be eaten.

Yet, more so than at any time in history, we're bombarded with messages urging us to consume more.

The fast-food industry spends more than $4 billion a year on advertising, according to Yale University's Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity. The average preschooler sees about three ads for fast food every day, the center found. The average teen sees about five.

Should we have a junk-food tax? I think so. The healthcare reform law already includes a tax on indoor tanning salons because of skin-cancer risks. It seems reasonable that we would similarly tax high-fat, high-calorie foods and beverages because of their potential health dangers.

We should also incentivize more-active lifestyles. Gym memberships should be tax-deductible and should be subsidized in part by lower health-insurance premiums. People who don't smoke, don't drink and maintain healthy weights should also benefit in the form of reduced premiums.

In the meantime, we should follow the lead of the first lady's common-sense advice: Eat well, exercise more, turn off the TV.

That's the real Obamacare. And it works.

David Lazarus' column runs Tuesdays and Fridays. He also can be seen daily on KTLA-TV Channel 5. Send your tips or feedback to david.lazarus@latimes.com.

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