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Mixed messages on obesity

TOMMY THOMPSON, the US secretary of health and human services, said last week, "We need to address America's weight issues as aggressively as we are addressing smoking and tobacco." And yet his immediate response to the obesity epidemic is a series of public service ads, while the Bush administration proposes a huge cut in a successful advertising campaign and a House committee balks at providing fresh fruits and vegetables to schoolchildren. Serious action against obesity will require strong, coordinated action by the federal government, not half-measures.


Thompson's announcement came as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported a 33 percent increase in deaths caused by inactivity and overeating during the 1990s. Thompson's ad campaign focuses on small steps toward weight control, such as less dessert. This might make sense for adults, and Thompson lost 15 pounds by following this regimen. But obesity is reaching downward to ensnare greater numbers of young people. The epidemic among them requires a more vigorous response.

Also last week, the House Education Committee voted to reauthorize the $15 billion-a-year school lunch program with an expanded effort to educate cafeteria workers and young people about healthier meals. But the committee rejected a plan to encourage the federal government to set standards for foods sold in vending machines in schools and at the last minute threw out a proposal to expand a pilot program to provide fresh fruits and vegetables to schoolchildren.

School lunch is one meal where the federal government plays an important role. The full House ought to include both provisions in the bill, particularly the fruit and vegetable program, which has the potential to improve lifetime eating habits.

Children are bombarded with thousands of televised food advertisements every year. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that the VERB campaign, paid ads targeted at youngsters ages 9 to 13, has persuaded many of them to exercise more. Yet the Bush administration wants to cut the $36 million being spent on VERB this year to $5 million in 2005.

On Friday the Food and Drug Administration, one of the agencies in Thompson's department, proposed better labeling on foods, but its most striking recommendation -- information about calories at restaurants -- was merely a suggestion. National restaurant chains, which serve uniform portions of food, ought to be compelled to post calories on their menus.

Last week the House voted to ban suits against the food industry by people who allege that its products made them fat. The Senate should reject this legislation. Until the federal government acts more consistently, litigation may be one of the few weapons available to stop the obesity epidemic.

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