TOPICS > Health

Foundation Channels $500 Million Toward Childhood Obesity

April 5, 2007 at 3:40 PM EDT

RAY SUAREZ: Now, a call to action, and a major boost of cash, to fight the growing problem of obesity in America’s children.

Study after study shows more American kids are growing up overweight. The number of overweight kids has tripled in the last 30 years: 25 million Americans under 17 are now considered obese or overweight.

In 1963, the average 10-year-old weighed about 76 pounds. Today, about 87 pounds. Kids eat more unhealthy foods and exercise less. One study showed only about a quarter of kids have physical education class at school.

The problems go beyond appearance and self-confidence. Medical treatments for these children cost $14 billion a year, and those bills will stack up as the children grow into unhealthy adults.

DR. JOSEPH THOMPSON, Arkansas Surgeon General: When we look at the adult diseases that are starting to occur in children, we can not afford not to take action.

RAY SUAREZ: This week, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, created by the long-time CEO of Johnson and Johnson, announced it will contribute half a billion dollars over five years to join in the fight against childhood obesity.

Most urgent health problem for kids

RAY SUAREZ: For more on how that money will be spent and the health problems faced by overweight children, I'm joined by the foundation's president and CEO, Dr. Risa Lavizzo-Mourey in Princeton, New Jersey.

For the record, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation funds the NewsHour's Health Unit.

Dr. Lavizzo-Mourey, of all the things that face Americans and their health, why put such a large pot of money into research on this particular malady?

DR. RISA LAVIZZO-MOUREY, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation: Well, Ray, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation is the largest private foundation that is focused solely on helping Americans live healthier lives and get the health care they need. And childhood obesity is, frankly, the most urgent health problem facing our kids today.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, in what way? I mean, is this something that we now know, that fat kids become fat adults, for instance, and that's where the costs and the suffering comes?

DR. RISA LAVIZZO-MOUREY: It's a very prevalent problem: 25 million kids are overweight or obese. The rates are rising; they've quadrupled over the last four decades. And we know that the kids who have problems with being overweight or obese are much more likely to have serious medical problems.

You know, when I was in medical school, we used to call type II diabetes adult-onset diabetes, because you didn't see it until people were in their 40s, 50s, early 60s. Now, when we have children who are obese from the time they're 2, 3, 4 years old, we're starting to see type II diabetes in late teens and early 20s.

And what that means is that these kids are going to have the complications of diabetes in their 30s and 40s. So kidney disease, kidney failure, heart disease, high blood pressure, these are the things that are going to increase the burden of illness for these young adults so that they may well be the first generation that lives sicker and dies younger than the previous generation.

Enabling communities to change

RAY SUAREZ: Half a billion dollars over five years is an enormous amount of money. Spin out a time line for me. Help me understand how money granted by the foundation percolates through the system and ends up, at some point in the future, either with a child who never becomes obese in the first place or one who was overweight and is now thinner.

DR. RISA LAVIZZO-MOUREY: Well, we're making a long-term commitment. This is a large amount of money, but a private foundation cannot make this kind of a change, cannot reverse an epidemic of this magnitude by itself. It's going to take action at all levels: government policies, school systems getting involved, families getting involved, and communities becoming healthier places.

So let me give you a couple of examples of how that can work. What we would like to do is fund the evidence, the research that will tell policymakers what kinds of policies might make schools and communities healthier places.

So, for example, years ago, most people walked to school. Now, 90 percent of kids are driven to school, even if they live within a mile of their school. There's an idea out there called the walking school bus, where literally you have an adult who gathers kids, goes door to door, gets the kids, and walks them to school.

Well, those kinds of ideas, if they can have an impact on kids and on the long-term obesity epidemic, we want to disseminate those. But in order for those ideas to really work, there have been to be sidewalks, there have to be safe routes to schools, and we have to have traffic lights near the schools. Those are the kind of policy changes that the Institute of Medicine has recommended to be coupled with these great ideas at the community level.

So what we see our funding as doing over the next five years is funding those kinds of good ideas, seeing whether they're going to work, and then putting the policy changes that are needed to enable them and enable the communities to make those changes in place.

Creating a healthy environment

RAY SUAREZ: Well, you bring up a good point, the interlocking nature of these factors. But if you look at other lifestyle changes that impact health -- smoking, the use of alcohol, the use of drugs -- you can work on the person themselves who's making a decision to do this, get them to stop, urge them to stop, illustrate the problems.

But it seems to me that children are a little different, because they are so heavily affected by the decisions of adults around them and have so little impact on where a school is put, whether or not there's a sidewalk in front of their house, how the school bus system that gets them there takes them there, and what's being served at the dinner table that night.

DR. RISA LAVIZZO-MOUREY: And I think that that is exactly why, as a policy matter and as a societal matter, we think that focusing on childhood obesity where the role of the individual child is so clearly connected to the rest of our social norms is important.

Kids don't create the environment that they live in. As a society, we have a responsibility to provide a safe and healthy environment for our children.

And the fact is that, over the last two generations, we have slowly changed our culture in a way that makes it harder and harder for parents to do what they want to do, which is to raise healthy kids.

If you think about the example that I gave before, number of people who walk to school two generations ago or 40 years ago as compared to now, think about the kinds of foods that were being served in schools or served at home two generations ago as compared to now. We've seen the portion sizes increasing; we've seen more people eating in restaurants and the families eating in restaurants.

What that means is that kids aren't really able to create an environment and make choices that are default healthy choices. We have to create an environment that allows them to do that.

RAY SUAREZ: Dr. Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, thanks for joining us.