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Diabetes and the trash food industry

TYPE 2 DIABETES is sweeping so rapidly through America we need not waste time giving children bicycles. Just roll them a wheelchair. Forget the basketballs and baseballs. Give them Braille flash cards. The next thing you know, iPods, Game Boys and Xboxes will come with glucose meters, beeping ''Sorry to interrupt your song or movie, but it will not continue until you use me."

One of the saddest, emerging facts about Type 2 diabetes is how it is robbing children of their childhood. It is well on its way to dropping the overall life expectancy of Americans. This grim world of amputations, blindness, heart disease and kidney failure, once assumed to be confined to those with wrinkles, has descended into the tender world.

We have created this monster by allowing trash food marketers to prey on our children and by letting our children disappear into video screens. The number of Americans with type-2 diabetes, the kind that can be controlled by exercise and eating right, has exploded from 5.8 million in 1980 to 18.2 million today, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

An American child born in 2000 has a 1 in 3 chance of contracting diabetes in his lifetime. An African American has a 2 in 5 chance. At current rates, every other Latina born in 2000 will get the disease. Fast food, soda and sugar snack companies are well represented in the Fortune 500, but the costs on the other end are staggering.

The CDC estimates that diabetes costs the United States $92 billion in medical costs and $40 billion in indirect costs, such as restricted or lost worker productivity. While diabetics now make up 6.3 percent of the population, the American Diabetes Association estimates that the disease accounts for 19 percent of health spending in the United States.

So far, none of that has captured the imagination of Americans outside of doctors, public health officials, and those school districts that have kicked out the soda machines. That is, except for pharmacies, super stores and the medical supplies industry which are gearing up for the miserable fallout.

In one of its 2005 reports, the marketing information firm IRI said that sufferers of diabetes, obesity, and high cholesterol are ''ideal targets for retailer and manufacturer programs aimed at driving sales growth. Many ailments such as diabetes and high cholesterol are regularly treated with prescription medication. For retailers and manufacturers, this translates to frequent shopping trips and thus, countless opportunities to build relationships and drive non-prescription behavior."

In the case of diabetics, the ''relationship" would be built around low-sugar, low-carbohydrate and low-fat foods and beverages. It also means that the expanding racks for diabetes management supplies, such as insulin, syringes and blood sugar meters also mean more customers who buy other items in the stores. ''This is a hotly competitive area for retailers," Kerrylyn Whalen Rodriguez, a diabetes specialist for ShopKo's pharmacies, told the trade publication Retail Merchandiser. ''You are serving a niche that is needed for patient care but is also a huge sales driver. It's not just the right thing to do, it's profitable."

Ed Staffa, vice president of member services for the National Association of Chain Drug Stores, added in Retail Merchandiser, ''These are repeat patients. On an ongoing basis, the same individuals purchase products month in, month out. If you are able to engage them as a patient initially, you have their patronage for the rest of their life."

While business waits for the diseased to fall to them, the greater story is tragic. The nation our children are being born into is one in which they are more likely to be acquainted with sugar test strips than final exams in college.

The oversexed marketing and perfect bodies thrown at youth in the name of fashion will become a mockery as the young grow old before the age of 50, with brittle nails, callouses, over-sensitive skin, balding scalps, punctured bodies and of course, lost limbs.

The nation has not yet had the courage to stand up against trash food and has forgotten how to send our kids out to play. The bodies of our young are becoming trash and there is no time to play.

Derrick Z. Jackson's e-mail address is

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