October 05, 2004

Prepared Testimony before the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Hearing on Reducing Childhood Obesity

Across this country, on couches in front of televisions and video game consoles, a silent killer called obesity is stalking America's youngsters in epidemic numbers.Senator Frist and I have introduced a bipartisan bill based on the proposition that children can't escape this killer on their own. And far too few grownups are working to save them, one reason being that the grownups are fighting the same killer, too. What the Majority Leader and I hope to do with our legislation is to jump-start a nationwide, community-based campaign against this menace. There must be a national mobilization to help our kids grow up healthy. And when I say the country must mobilize, I am calling on this committee and this Congress to lead the way. Just as children won't change their own eating and exercise habits by osmosis, so the adults of this country will not take up the fight against obesity without leadership and help.Let me share with you just one devastating example of the problem: in my home state of Oregon, obesity may well become the number-two killer of our citizens.According to the Oregon Department of Human Services, fully 22 percent of the adults in Oregon are obese and 60 percent are overweight. The Centers for Disease Control found the obesity rate among Oregon adults increased by 86 percent from 1990 to 2002. Even more tragic, and why we are here today, is that CDC says at least 31 percent of low-income children between two and five years of age in Oregon are overweight or at risk of becoming overweight. A lot of those overweight kids are going to become overweight and obese adults if we just sit on our hands today. We're going to end up playing medical catch-up ball, and financial catch-up ball, for the rest of their lives.Here's an example for you: Diabetes kills three times as many people in Oregon today as it did 15 years ago. The truth behind that figure is, that being overweight or obese dramatically increases a child's risk for diabetes, and that can lead to more chronic illnesses. Diabetes is the leading cause of kidney disease, heart disease, amputation and blindness. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that due to this epidemic of obesity, one in three Americans born in the year 2000 will develop diabetes in their lifetime and for minorities that number jumps to nearly half.Think about that. A lot of folks in this room have children and grandchildren who are young right now, or still on the way. And the numbers don't look good for the kids that we love. And those numbers don't measure the emotional toll that illness takes on a child, their families and others who love them.The financial costs are staggering as well. In January, research was released showing the cost of obesity to our health care systems. The research looked at adult obesity health care costs and concluded: annual U.S. medical expenditures because of obesity are estimated at $75 billion in 2003 dollars, and approximately one-half of these expenditures are financed by Medicare and Medicaid.And if we do nothing to help our children get fit and stay fit, those figures will only grow as more overweight kids become overweight adults. Obesity among children is up. But the dollars being spent now, on their obesity-related diseases in childhood, are just a drop in the bucket compared to what we're going to have to spend. Many obesity-related diseases are chronic and lifelong. Again, it's a prescription for catch-up ball.Here's how the Frist-Wyden bill, the Childhood Obesity Reduction Act, will work to turn the tide against childhood obesity.First, it will give teachers, parents and other community leaders a one-stop shop to fight obesity. The Congressional council created by this bill will launch a comprehensive website to help everyone from PE teachers to scout leaders learn what's working in schools and public-private programs. But it doesn't stop there - it will also offer advice on connecting with those successful programs and adapting them in their own schools.Let me give you a real-world example of how this component will work: When a teacher sees a study like one that was released recently showing that 30 minutes of activity can help combat childhood obesity, but the school doesn't have the resources or has had to cut their physical education program, that teacher could go to the website and see what others in a similar situation have done to remedy that problem. They would be able to see there are partners like Nike who are willing to step up to the plate and help with programs. But that teacher might also see that physical activity is only one part of the solution and they might find ways to bring in the nutritional aspect as well through other programs that have already proven successful.The website will also offer help in establishing goals for cutting childhood obesity at that school or in that community - and all these plans will have been evaluated by outside experts for their effectiveness.Secondly, once the one-stop shop is established, it will be time to move to the next level. We're not setting up a permanent Congressional committee where politicians can take root and it all gets run from the government.After two years, the Congressional council turns the work over to a brand-new foundation. The foundation will keep the one-stop website up and running. But at the same time, they'll be able to raise money, and use it to reward programs that work and fund programs that are sorely needed where childhood obesity threatens most.Here's an example of how the second component of our bill would work: say an urban school wants to work on getting kids to choose vegetables instead of French fries - which would be a huge step in the battle against childhood obesity. When they visit the website, they may find a successful program about actually growing fresh vegetables - so they don't think vegetables just come from a freezer or a can. The Foundation will have the wherewithal to do more than just share that information; they may be able to provide the seed money, literally, for a school garden that will grow fresh produce and change the way those children look at food.It is not realistic to think that children won't be in a situation where unhealthy choices for foods and snacks are available. The goal ought to be help them know what the healthy choices are, how to balance what they eat and drink so they make better choices and to know that they need exercise - particularly if they want to have that not so nutritionally perfect snack. And the foundation can keep pursuing those goals for the long term.As I close, let me share with you another startling fact about obesity: spending on obesity-related medical care is starting to rival the spending related to smoking. We know the toll tobacco-related diseases have taken on our citizens and on health care costs. When you consider that obesity-related illnesses are following that terrible track, how can we refuse to act to help our children avoid a future of disease and illness?I've spent a good part of my public service fighting Big Tobacco and working to make sure kids can grow up without having cigarettes thrown at them and ads enticing them. And over time, the many actions of individuals, organizations and government have had success in slowing the number of kids addicted to nicotine. We can't let up on that effort, and now we must also act to help our kids become fit and stay fit.It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that these two killers - tobacco and obesity - have a lot in common. Big tobacco targets younger Americans and children around the world because those who begin smoking earlier in life tend to stay hooked longer. Children who don't learn good eating and exercise habits tend to carry that weight on into adulthood.I know that members of this committee feel as passionately about this issue as I do. What our legislation has in common is an emphasis on addressing both sides of the equation: nutrition and physical activity. One without the other will not make our children healthy. But I do believe that the Wyden-Frist bill is significant because it will create an immediate, one-stop resource, in the form of a website, about what we know is working now so that individuals can begin to mobilize their communities and help their children. Senator Harkin's proposal for example, also has an emphasis on research and preventive services; I think those are also important steps in assisting our children become healthy adults.All of us have the same, simple goal here: getting America's children healthy. There are a lot of folks competing for our kids' attention in this arena. A lot of the competition is pretty attractive: food that's not so nutritious but sure tastes good, and video games that don't burn any calories but can occupy you for an entire afternoon. It's tough for kids to make good choices on their own. That's why it's time to mobilize this nation - and particularly this Congress, by way of legislation - to beat the epidemic of obesity plaguing our children.