Thursday, March 25, 2010

Big Problem

Health-care reform will help mitigate America's obesity problem, but there are more contentious issues that will need to be resolved to fully address it.

Take one highly publicized ingredient, high-fructose corn syrup, which is derived from corn and has made its way into a multitude of the foods and drinks we consume—ketchup, sodas, and even the presumably good stuff like salad dressing and yogurt. A formidable contingent of nutritionists believe that agricultural subsidies for corn and other crops have contributed to the obesity crisis by making fattening foods cheap and ubiquitous. They want the subsidies expunged.

For more than a year, the crisis of uninsured Americans has dominated the talk of the town in Washington. As it should. But now attention is turning to one of the most vexing and costly public health care challenges in the country—the problem of obesity. More than two thirds of adults and one third of children in the U.S. are overweight or obese, and the medical effects will continue to unfold in the decades to come. Will health-care reform help tackle obesity? And what else might happen now that first lady Michelle Obama has adopted it as her bailiwick?

Obesity is, in policy speak, "multifactorial," meaning there are many causes, from how much we move to what we eat and drink. Last year legislators considered a federal tax on sweetened beverages as a way to pay for health-care reform. Public-health advocates, including CDC director Tom Frieden, love this idea. If sodas and sugary sports drinks cost more, the theory goes, people will stop buying them, lose some weight, and get healthier. The beverage industry, unsurprisingly, lobbied the idea out the back door of the Capitol, but it is gaining momentum on the local level.

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