Obesity proves
tough opponent

Hawaii's efforts come under
discussion at a national conference

When state Rep. Maile Shimabukuro tried to introduce a bill to help curb obesity in Hawaii's schools, she met a flurry of opposition.

Soda lobbyists said banning vending machines packed with soft drinks in schools wasn't a good idea because budget-cut-ridden schools really needed the cash.

Even school officials fought against it, saying they needed the money and soda companies helped sponsor educational programs that the state treasury wouldn't pay for.

As concern grows over the rising problem of obesity in the United States -- about 30 percent of U.S. adults are obese -- more state officials are trying to tackle the issue.

But state legislators across the country are discovering it's difficult to pass laws intended to reduce obesity.

Health officials and legislators traded war stories on obesity laws yesterday in Atlanta at a public health law conference sponsored by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"Legislative initiatives have a very uphill climb," said Susan Combs, Texas agriculture commissioner. "Not that they can't get done, (but) the pressures are so intense."

As a result, state officials have been forced to find other ways to improve the health of their constituents.

In Hawaii, Shimabukuro and others have turned away from the state Capitol to fight obesity.

Dr. Terry Shintani has created the "Hawaii Diet" and the "Waianae Diet," encouraging native Hawaiians to return to traditional, and more healthy, eating habits.

People in Shimabukuro's district, which includes Waianae and Makua, have created an organic farm and farmers' market to get more people to eat fruits and veggies.

"We have a big problem with obesity," Shimabukuro said. "Community initiatives are where I really have a lot more hope."

Texas used administrative measures rather than laws to fight fat.

Combs became the "Food Czarina" after her state had the federal Agriculture Department OK a waiver to transfer the state's school breakfast and lunch program from the education department to its agriculture department.

"Kids are eating 60 percent of their food in schools, and we should do no harm while they are in our custody," she said.

There, she surveyed the landscape and was shocked by what she found. In some schools, coaches were selling deep-fried candy bars to students in classrooms and cafeterias were removing lunch tables so kids would eat in the hallways, within easy reach of snack machines.

As a result, Combs issued school nutrition polices against fried and fatty foods in March and placed TV ads encouraging healthy eating and physical activity. Companies like Pizza Hut have vowed to meet her standards.

"I did this by fiat" rather than by a hotly contested legislative effort, she said.

Combs' method may be the model for other states, said Edward Richards III, a professor of law at Louisiana State University.

"She was able to do more than she ever would have been able to do with a statute," Richards said. "Passing a bad law now can cause inadvertent mischief."

Making kids eat only healthy snacks may not address the real problem -- that kids are eating too much in-between meals. Banning fast foods from schools could force those schools to let kids eat off campus, where students may make equally unhealthy dining choices on their own, he said.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention


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