Saturday, October 19, 2002

State of Hawaii

State briefing lists ideas
to make kids less fat

By Helen Altonn

Taxing junk food and banning soft drinks and snacks with low nutritional value from schools are among ideas being considered by the House Health Committee chairman to battle Hawaii's childhood obesity epidemic.

Others include a "Safe Passages" program with safe places for children to play and walk to school and an alcohol "sin tax" to fund physical activity programs for kids, said Rep. Dennis Arakaki (D, Kamehameha Heights-Kalihi Valley).

Learn-to-swim programs should be reactivated, he said, pointing out about half of Hawaii kids don't know how to swim in a state surrounded by water.

The legislator cited those among other possible solutions to childhood obesity and chronic diseases at an informational briefing on the problems yesterday at the Capitol auditorium.

Hawaii children are twice as fat as mainland children their age, according to University of Hawaii studies.

Speakers agreed there is no simple answer. Fighting fat will require collaboration by families, schools and communities, state, county and nonprofit agencies and businesses, they said.

They stressed the importance of continuing to use the state's tobacco settlement money on a Healthy Hawaii Initiative to promote better eating habits and exercise and prevent smoking.

State Health Director Bruce Anderson cited "significant progress" in the last few years toward a healthier population but stressed that the programs must be sustained.

Efforts have been made in the Legislature to divert the tobacco settlement money to non-health programs, he pointed out, urging continued support to maintain the Healthy Hawaii Initiative.

Dennis Chai, associate professor in the Kinesiology and Leisure Science Department, said hundreds of billions of dollars are spent on chronic diseases and problems related to obesity nationally. "We've got to go out and change behavior."

He said daily physical and health education should be mandated in the schools to reverse Hawaii's "appalling" obesity with healthy lifestyles.

Instead of increasing physical education, however, education officials said a proposal is pending to cut a one-year high school physical education requirement to one semester.

Jodi Leslie, supervisor of the Health Department's physical activity and nutrition section, said Hawaii obesity rates overall are about the same as the national average but zoom up for native Hawaiians and certain other ethnic groups.

"Diet and physical inactivity are responsible for more deaths than tobacco," she said.

She said the Health Department is focusing on environmental systems and policy changes to address outside influences, such as vending machines at schools and inadequate physical activity.

State education and health officials and Maui and Molokai community representatives described a broad range of cooperative activities initiated with the tobacco money to improve health, from homegrown produce to starting fitness centers.

Dr. Linda Rosen, Health Department Family Health Services medical director, said her 8-year-old can recite the food pyramid but whether he eats a nutritious diet depends on what she serves him at home and what he gets at school.

"Parents and adults control food and activity options," she pointed out, stressing that a healthy lifestyle begins at home. "You can't expect children to do what you don't do yourself."

Dan Yahata and Dee Helber, education specialists, said the Department of Education is applying for a grant to develop a total system of school health.

Meanwhile, they said activities to encourage healthier eating, more exercise and no smoking have begun in 90 schools.

Some are offering water and milk in their vending machines and selling more water than soda, Helber said.

The School Food Services Branch serves 150,000 lunches daily, to about 80 percent of the students, said director Eugene Kaneshiro. But it serves only 25,000 breakfasts, about 20 percent, he said. "Where are the kids?"

He said school lunches are balanced and nutritious but he questioned whether kids really are eating them. "I think they'd rather eat Coke and potato chips. They don't want to eat what we want them to eat."

Hawaii Department of Health

State of Hawaii

E-mail to City Desk


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