The Journal Editorial Report | April 29, 2005 | PBS
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briefing and opinion
April 29, 2005

Body Mass Report Card
cookie monster
While school children in Arkansas are getting grades in body mass, Cookie Monster has been told that he should consider a more balanced diet of cookies and fruit. Cookies are now a "sometimes" not "anytime" food.

Measuring the body mass index, or BMI of public school students might sound drastic, but in Arkansas -- it's the law. Celeste Ford reports on how one state is trying to reign in childhood obesity.

Shawn Chaperon Every year the schools take the height and weight of each child, the state makes the calculation and the district mails parents the report, a letter explaining whether their child's weight is normal or a health risk. Shawn Chaperon, 11, is among the 38 percent of Arkansas students found to be obese or on the verge.

For the Chaperon family, The BMI report was a wake-up call -- their son Sean was very close to developing obesity-related diabetes. "Your heart just starts to sink, as you hear that or read that your child's obese," said Shawn's mother Michelle Chaperon. "I didn't want to fail as a mother, and I didn't want to think I'd failed him."

The percentage of overweight children has more than tripled since the 1970s. Among adults, obesity is the nation's fastest growing cause of disease and death. The medical and other related costs are staggering -- $117 billion per year, according to the federal government.

"There's a tremendous price tag on obesity," says Arkansas State Representative Jay Bradford "and it just doesn't go away." Bradford was key in developing the BMI law. He says Arkansas could no longer afford to be one of the fattest states. As relying on personal responsibility was not proving to be effective, the state felt it had to intervene. Jay Bradford

Bradford says the Arkansas law has become a model for other states struggling to find a solution. The federal government seems more certain of what it should do about obesity. U.S. Surgeon General Richard Carmona says the government's primary role is to educate not legislate.

"We're largely a health-illiterate country," says Carmona. "Passing policy that would direct government to do something without a citizenry that understands, probably is a waste of time."

The Surgeon General says more federal regulations are a last resort. But in years past, government often used its clout to change personal behaviors that hurt society.

Limits on sales and marketing have been used to curb smoking and drinking, but even as obesity has ballooned into an epidemic, the Bush Administration has shown little interest in telling Americans how to eat.

Why not regulate? Seeing that the tools do exist? U.S. Surgeon General Richard Carmona

"Because we're in a democracy," says Surgeon General Carmona. "People have the ability to make choices. If we educate them, we hope that most of the people will make the right choice on behalf of their children, their families and themselves."

"The administration needs to do more than just talk," says Margo Wootan who directs nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest. "They need to take meaningful actions."

"We're not talking about the government entering into arenas they've never been in," says Wootan. "The government's already there. We're just asking that they do a better job."

federal agencies Wootan says the federal government could do something about obesity by using regulations already on the books. For example, the USDA sets nutrition standards for school lunches but does little to enforce them or to limit junk food in vending machines. The FDA oversees food labeling but does not require fast food restaurants to post similar information. The FTC regulates T.V. marketing, but lacks the authority to curb $7 billion dollars of food ads that target children.

Those who oppose government regulation point to the recent decision by the nation's largest food company, Kraft, which announced plans to phase out ads aimed at children under age 12. That means fewer T.V. spots for some of our favorite cookies.

It's self-regulation and, according to Kraft, good business.

"We've taken a voluntary step, on our own, that strikes a nice middle ground between those who say that nothing should be done and those who think that there shouldn't be marketing at all," says Mark Berlind of Kraft.

cookie commercialKraft's move is also considered a pre-emptive strike. Its sister company is Phillip Morris, the tobacco giant well known for fending off class action lawsuits.

Back in Arkansas, prompted by his BMI report, Shawn's parents sought treatment for him at the Arkansas children's hospital. Today he's reading food labels and spending less time in front of the T.V..

"For me I thought, 'there's another reason for the government to stick their nose in where it doesn't belong,'" says Darrell Chaperon. "You know, they're getting personal now. But I'm glad they did come out with this cause our son was headed toward possibly getting diabetes without us even realizing it."

The Surgeon General said more regulations are a last resort.

"I think we're at the last resort," says Margo Wootan. "How much longer do they want to wait before they really begin to address nutrition and obesity?"

Ultimately, combating obesity is a personal responsibility. What lawmakers must decide is the level of government responsibility for helping individuals make good decisions about their health.

Q & A - U.S. Surgeon General Richard Carmona >