TCC hosts childhood obesity conference

TCC hosts conference on combating childhood obesity

5/9/2010

On March 17, the Thompson Conference Center (TCC) welcomed public health educators from across the United States to the 4th Annual Michael and Susan Dell Lectureship in Child Health & Social & Environmental Solutions to Obesity Conference. For 39 years, the TCC has been a meeting place where people and innovative ideas come together; this event was no exception. Conference attendees strategized ways to combat the childhood obesity epidemic and discovered possible solutions by listening to lessons learned from campaigns to combat smoking.

Kenneth Warner, PhD, Dean, University of Michigan School of Public Health, shared his experiences as a veteran of the tobacco wars in his session, “Puffs and Pounds: Lessons from Tobacco Control for Combating the Obesity Epidemic.” He argued that the issue at hand is not “childhood obesity,” but rather “obesity,” in general.

  • The fight against obesity will be more difficult than the fight against smoking.
  • Smoking is the leading cause of avoidable premature death. Death caused by alcohol, illicit drugs, guns, poison, and AIDS combined do not come close to the 440,000 annual smoking-related deaths. Obesity-related deaths will soon overtake this number.
  • An early anti-smoking publicity campaign was lesson number one in the tobacco wars. The public responded, and those educated by the campaign were the first to quit. This campaign needs to be replicated to fight obesity.
  • Other tactics that worked to combat tobacco included taxing cigarettes.

Warner advised attendees to:

  • Be patient. Understand and accept that fighting obesity is a difficult challenge.
  • Don’t think about prevention or cure. Do both.
  • Mix research, politics and activism in all you do.

Kelly Brownell, PhD, of Yale University explained in his keynote address, “Addressing Nutrition & Obesity Issues by Changing Defaults,” that education is not working as well in the war on obesity. Warner expressed that information can’t counter the immense amount of food industry marketing that people encounter. Brownell likened the food industry’s response to critics and educators with Gandhi’s advice to “laugh, ignore, fight, win” against the opposition.

Brownell suggested changing the “defaults” of bad eating habits through legislation, regulation, economics, and environmental factors, for example, legislating that junk food machines be taken out of schools. This action removes a negative “default” that people have of what they can eat. People don’t have to decide not to eat something. Instead, it’s just not available to them or at such an expense that they decide against it; Brownell explained how a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages (SSB) could make these less affordable, especially for youth. Once considered a treat, sugary sodas are now a staple in America’s diet. However, studies show that excessive sugar affects the brain like morphine and nicotine and are also contributors to obesity.

His advice to educators and researchers is to reach legislators with research showing the relationship between foods and addiction.

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