In her first report to the nation as U.S. surgeon general, Dr. Regina Benjamin chose to address the nation’s obesity epidemic. The Surgeon General’s Vision for a Healthy and Fit Nation, released in January, came just days before first lady Michelle Obama launched an initiative to combat childhood obesity. One of every three children in America is overweight or at risk of becoming too heavy. Acting Deputy Surgeon General Dr. David Rutstein discussed the topic with Chronicle reporter Cindy George last month while attending a childhood obesity conference organized by the Greater Houston Area Health Education Center.
Q: How does the Office of the Surgeon General set priorities in tackling a problem as complex as childhood obesity?
A: This has to be a collaborative, national approach. That’s why I like the theme of this conference: Uniting Against Childhood Obesity — because that’s what it’s going to take. It can’t just involve the federal government or the local government; the public sector or the private sector. It has to involve parents and families and communities and school boards. This isn’t new. Primary care physicians like myself and the surgeon general have seen this for years. All these chubby kids are like anything else — unless it’s an in-your-face type of threat, it tends to be given lower priority. What’s happened in the last five or six years is that other communities in America have started to realize there’s a problem.
Q: Like who?
A: The economists who look at our expenditures on health care — 17 percent of our gross national product. Within 15 years it may double. So you could have the richest country on earth spending one-third of everything it produces on health care. It becomes economically unsustainable. Of young men and women who try to enlist in our military, about one-third can’t meet the height-weight standards. It’s a problem for all of us because it affects the economy and security of our entire nation.
Q: How does the office overcome perceptions that the government is trying to control the lives of youngsters?
A: It begins with education. This problem is not produced by children. Children don’t buy things from the grocery store. They’re not the ones who set policies of what gets taught or served in school or how much physical education the school board approves. They’re not the ones who decide how long they’re going to sit in front of the TV. It begins with reaching the adults, the parents, the people in the community who have direct influence over children.
Q: How can the government and the surgeon general help people overcome barriers to healthy lifestyles?
A: If a street doesn’t have a sidewalk, you’re not going to get people walking down the street. Government at all levels could link the paving of roads with the development of sidewalks. How many urban settings don’t have safe playgrounds or the school board won’t allow the lights to remain on at the local school after dark and people can’t go play basketball or run around the track? There are many areas, particularly the inner city, where grocery stores aren’t available and people get their food from a corner convenience store. There’s no reason that government can’t incentivize large grocery chains to locate in inner city areas.
Q: How do we resolve issues with access to health care?
A: There are tremendous disparities not only in access to care but in outcomes when people have access. The federal government can try to swing the pendulum toward remedying some of the disparities that have accrued over decades and centuries in our nation. Will it happen right away? No, but what we’re seeing recently is a greater awareness of this issue.
Q: What is your perspective on the new health reform legislation?
A: I am very encouraged by the new law that was passed, that places a greater emphasis on access to care and the provision of more health care providers and certainly on the prevention of illness — which in the long run is going to solve this for everybody.
By CINDY GEORGE