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Economic crisis, meet obesity crisis

February 3, 2009 |  1:00 pm

Obesityed1The economic downsizing of the United States presents a good opportunity to address the downsizing of the average American, say doctors in an editorial published today in the Journal of the American Medical Assn. They argue that the Obama administration's economic stimulus plan, now being debated in the Senate, should include investments in infrastructure to decrease obesity.

The idea is that improvements in public health would decrease obesity-related health and economic costs (estimated at $100 billion per year) and would position Americans to become more economically competitive, say the authors of the paper, Dr. David Ludwig, of Children's Hospital Boston, and Harold Pollack, of the University of Chicago's Center for Health Administration Studies. In the absence of such action, they say, obesity and public health are likely to worsen.

"The economic downturn can be expected to reduce nutrition quality and physical activity, worsening obesity prevalence when society is least able to bear the escalating financial burden," they wrote.

In times of economic stress, consumers tend to eat less costly, high-calorie products, they say. Membership in gyms, fitness classes and sports leagues declines. Some schools may even cut physical education time. The economic stimulus plan, however, could create jobs and invest in the nation's health through such projects as building school kitchens to cook nutritious food; building sidewalks, bike paths, parks, sports facilities and community health centers; and changing government policies to revitalize farming.

Today's Los Angeles Times story on the stimulus plan debate notes that Senate Republicans object to a $75-million measure in the package that would help people quit smoking. That doesn't bode well for other public-health enhancements to the bill. But you can't blame health experts for trying. Here's how Ludwig and Pollack put it:

"Does U.S. society wish to produce vast amounts of low-quality food, neglect the social infrastructure to support physical activity, and sustain the inevitable economic and social harms of obesity-related diseases? Or will this opportunity to align economic and social policies with the interests of public health be seized by implementing a comprehensive, national obesity strategy? Failure to act now could ultimately cost society much more than even the sub-prime mortgage crisis."

-- Shari Roan

Photo: Susan Tibbles / For The Times