Our bellies and budget at risk


Published: Sunday, July 28, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, July 26, 2013 at 6:41 p.m.

In another major moment for America's expanding waistline, the American Medical Association last month officially recognized obesity as a disease.

The move is expected to allow medical practitioners to pay more attention to the condition and, perhaps more significantly for them, bill insurers for treating it.

But Florida Surgeon General John Armstrong believes that just expanding access to health care is the wrong way to address obesity.

"There's this flawed assumption that health is health care," he said.

It's an interesting perspective coming from an MD. Before being named the state's surgeon general and Department of Health secretary, Armstrong's experience included being an Army trauma surgeon and trauma medical director at Shands at the University of Florida.

Given the political environment in Tallahassee, it's no surprise that Armstrong rejects the notion that increasing access to health care is the best way to address obesity.

His department has been besieged by downsizing, reorganization and turnover, so being a cheerleader for Obamacare wouldn't exactly help with conservative critics.

That aside, Armstrong is right to focus on obesity as a threat to Florida's physical and fiscal health. Currently, about one-quarter of Floridians are obese. The figure is expected to rise to nearly 60 percent by 2030. The cost of care for chronic diseases from obesity is expected to be $34 billion over the next 17 years.

The Department of Health this year launched the Healthiest Weight Florida initiative to address the issue. The public-private partnership aims to bring together state agencies, nonprofit groups and businesses to help Floridians make informed choices about healthy eating and active living.

Armstrong said his experience watching kids eat breakfast and lunch at a school illustrates the problem. He saw most of the children's food end up in the trash. He attributed that to an unfamiliarity with healthy eating, as shown by students who didn't know how to peel bananas.

One of his ideas is "food coaches" in schools. Talking with children about nutrition helps get those messages to parents responsible for their other meals, Armstrong said.

The initiative also plans to ensure that food and beverages sold in schools meet or exceed dietary guidelines. Yet Armstrong dismissed New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg's efforts to ban big sodas, instead supporting partnering with fast-food restaurants to promote healthy choices.

He also was quick to distinguish his effort from First Lady Michelle Obama's "Let's Move!" anti-obesity campaign. He said that telling people what to do doesn't work — It's better to start the conversation with questions like, "Do you consider your weight to be a problem?"

It's sad that some people are so critical of Bloomberg and Obama that Armstrong would feel the need to distance himself from them. Obesity is such a huge problem that we should try everything to slow the rapid rise in our nation's weight.

That starts with listening to informed advice, whether it comes from our personal physicians or the state's top doctor.

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