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Bills would combat obesity

February 19, 2003
By: Melissa Maynard
State Capital Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY - Missouri lawmakers were told Wednesday they have a role to play in the nation's fight against fat.

The Senate Committee on Public Health had a public hearing for a bill Wednesday that might not have an immediate affect on our waistlines, but would try to help us understand how they got so big in the first place and suggest ways we can get our pants to fit again.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Mary Bland, D-Jackson County, would create the Commission on Obesity Prevention and Management within Missouri's Health Department. The Commission would study the problem and treatment options, maintain a database of obesity-related resources and advise schools on what they can do to become more nutrition-friendly. The Commission would report its findings to the legislature and the Governor.

A number of health-related agencies testified in support of the bill, including the America Heart Association and the Missouri Health Department.

According to a recent report released by the Missouri's Health Department, more than one in five Missouri adults are obese, making Missouri tenth in the nation for prevalence of obesity. More than half of Missouri adults are overweight.

Bland said the public grossly underestimates the complexity of the obesity problem and its toll on American society.

"I put a cigarette out years ago and haven't lit one since. I stopped drinking. But take away my food, and that's a whole different story," she said. "Many people don't realize that food is an addiction."

But Sen. Norma Champion, R-Greene County, who serves on the Senate Committee on Public Health, voiced concerns about the legislation, asserting that the problem can only be solved by people making good personal choices about nutrition and exercise.

"It's just too much government," Champion said. "There's no doubt that there's a problem, the question is if it's a problem that we should be solving."

Bland has introduced two additional bills which would attempt to attack our oversized stomachs through the regulation of health insurance companies and schools. Health insurers would be required to cover weight reduction services for patients who are 50 pounds overweight and have been told by doctors that the excess weight is causing health problems or will be likely to do so in the future. Schools would be required to have programs targeted at eliminating childhood obesity, including physical activities and nutrition education.

Bland said she has been concerned obesity for 20 years, and this is not the first time she has brought the issue to the legislature's attention. This year, however, her proposals come at a time when obesity is being recognized with increasing urgency as a serious health care problem by health professionals and legislators from around the country.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, eleven states have introduced legislation to increase taxes on junk food and soft drinks sold in vending machines or to completely ban the sale of all junk food and soft drink items in schools. Eighteen states have passed stricter school lunch program legislation than is mandated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

This week, legislators in Maine unveiled a group of bills targeting obesity, including a bill banning the sale of junk food in schools and a bill requiring calorie labeling on chain restaurants menus. A similar bill is in the works in New York, according to the Associated Press.

Bland said that one of the reasons why states have been slow to pass obesity-related legislation is a failure to recognize the implications of the health risks involved. Obesity has been shown to cause or increase the risk of 34 diseases and illnesses, including various types of cancer, Osteoarthritis and Type II Diabetes, she said.

According to Missouri Health Department, only tobacco causes more preventable deaths than poor nutrition and physical inactivity. Obesity is a major risk factor for 64% of Missouri deaths.

"There's more damage being done by obesity than we can ever imagine. We've always thought of it as a cosmetic issue. It's a health issue," Bland said. "For the most part, we don't think 'Oh, I'll save my heart,' we think 'I want to wear that dress tomorrow.'"

The committee took no immediate action on Bland's bill.