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Obesity Target of Renewed HHS Attack

Estimates 64 percent of Americans are overweight or worse 


With poor diet and physical inactivity poised to become the leading preventable cause of death in America, the Department of Health and Human Resources (HHS) has renewed its efforts against obesity and overweight by announcing a new national education campaign and a new research strategy.

A new study released by HHS' Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that deaths due to poor diet and physical inactivity rose by 33 percent over the past decade and may soon overtake tobacco as the leading preventable cause of death.

"Americans need to understand that overweight and obesity are literally killing us," HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson said.

Secretary Thompson said the new HHS and Ad Council advertising campaign educates Americans that they can take small, achievable steps to improve their health and reverse the obesity epidemic. Consumers don't need to go to extremes -- such as joining a gym or taking part in the latest diet plan -- to make improvements in their health. But they do need to get active and eat healthier, he said.

"America needs to get healthier one small step at a time," Secretary Thompson said. "Each small step does make a difference, whether it's taking the stairs instead of an elevator or snacking on fruits and vegetables. The more small steps we can take, the further down the road we will be toward better health for ourselves and our families."

HHS' release of its new education campaign with the Ad Council and NIH research agenda coincided with publication of the CDC study in this week's Journal of the American Medical Association. The study, "Actual Causes of Death in the United States, 2000," finds that 400,000 deaths in the U.S. in 2000 (17 percent of all deaths) were related to poor diet and physical inactivity. Only tobacco use caused more deaths (435,000). And while most of the major preventable causes of death showed declines or little change since 1990, deaths due to poor diet and physical inactivity increased 33 percent. "Poor diet and physical inactivity may soon overtake tobacco as the leading cause of death," the study concludes.

"The fact that more than a third of deaths in America each year are related to smoking, poor eating habits and physical inactivity is both tragic and unacceptable, because these are largely preventable behaviors," said CDC Director Julie Gerberding M.D. "Investments in programs to increase physical activity, improve diet and increase smoking cessation are more important than ever before and must continue to be high priorities."

An estimated 129.6 million Americans, or 64 percent, are overweight or obese. Obesity and overweight have been shown to increase the risk for developing type 2 diabetes, heart disease, some forms of cancer, and other disabling medical conditions. The total direct and indirect costs, including medical costs and lost productivity, were estimated at $117 billion nationally for 2000, according to the 2001 Surgeon General's Call to Action on Prevent and Decrease Overweight and Obesity.

Secretary Thompson unveiled a public awareness and education campaign, entitled Healthy Lifestyles & Disease Prevention, that encourages American families to take small, manageable steps within their current lifestyle -- versus drastic changes -- to ensure effective, long-term weight control.

The Healthy Lifestyles & Disease Prevention initiative -- which includes multi-media public service advertisements (PSAs) and a new interactive Web site -- http://www.smallstep.gov -- encourages Americans to make small activity and dietary changes, such as using stairs instead of an elevator, or taking a walk instead of watching television.

"Our research has shown that many Americans believe that they need to make drastic changes in their lifestyles to get healthy," according to Peggy Conlon, president and CEO of the Ad Council. "This innovative, clever advertising shows how small steps can go a long way."

"We know that gloom and doom messages warning against weight gain don't work," Secretary Thompson said. "These messages are provocative and attention-getting -- but they are also empowering and achievable."

Secretary Thompson also announced today that the NIH is developing a Strategic Plan for NIH Obesity Research. The strategy will intensify research to better understand, prevent and treat obesity through:

  • behavioral and environmental approaches to modifying lifestyle;

  • pharmacologic, surgical and other medical approaches; and

  • breaking the link between obesity and diseases such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease and some forms of cancer.

    The draft strategic plan, available at http://obesityresearch.nih.gov, is open for public comment until April 2. It was developed by a task force established by NIH Director Elias A. Zerhouni, M.D., last spring.

    [Source: Dept. of Health and Human Resources]

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