WASHINGTON, March 11 (UPI) -- A nationwide education campaign launched by the Health and Human Services Department focuses on a theme of small steps Americans can take to combat a rising tide of obesity in the United States.
"We're just too darn fat, ladies and gentlemen -- and we're going to do something about it," said HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson at a news briefing Tuesday.
The campaign's centerpiece is a trio of public-service television commercials created by the Ad Council, but the HHS department-wide program also includes exercise and diet initiatives from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, as well as a three-tiered research plan by the National Institutes of Health's Obesity Research Task Force.
The HHS announcement coincides with the release of a CDC report that analyzed all causes of U.S. deaths in 2000. The report suggests poor diet and physical inactivity soon may surpass tobacco as the leading cause of mortality.
The report, representing a database search of research journal articles, shows that although 18 percent of U.S. deaths reported in 2000 were tobacco-related, the combination of poor diet and physical inactivity not far behind at 16.6 percent.
The authors of the article -- published Wednesday in the Journal of the American Medical Association -- conclude that "a more preventive orientation in the U.S. healthcare and public health systems has become more urgent."
Dr. Julie Gerberding, director of the CDC, said because the findings are 4 years old, she "would not be at all surprised" if tobacco already had been surpassed.
Both the education program and the Ad Council's campaign focus on steps that can be taken by individuals, schools and employers to improve their current health and prevent obesity later.
An estimated 129.6 million Americans, or 64 percent, are overweight or obese, Thompson said. Despite the grim statistics, the ad campaign keeps a "provocative, light-hearted, entertaining" theme, he added.
"Guilt does not help people change the way they live, at least not in the long run," Thompson said, and noted improved public health could have positive effects on the economy by lowering insurance rates and healthcare costs.
Peggy Conlon, president and chief executive officer of the Ad Council, said New York ad agency McCann Erickson created the commercials pro bono in partnership with the council. The television networks ABC, CBS, FOX, NBC, PBS, Lifetime TV and Clear Channel will air the commercials, she said.
The three ads -- one of which is in Spanish -- are upbeat and show travelers, shoppers and beachcombers finding mysterious objects, which turn out to be "love handles" and a "double chin" that have been "lost" through exercise and diet.
A fourth ad by the Sesame Workshop was presented by Emilio Delgado -- "Luis" from the children's show "Sesame Street." It features Luis and puppet Elmo encouraging parents to introduce children to fruits and vegetables.
Margo Wootan, director of nutritional policy for the Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington, said public service ads can be a "reasonable approach."
Encouragement through PSA campaigns is not going to be enough, however, she said. Instead, the program should focus more on requiring labeling for calories in fast food restaurants and taking fast food out of schools.
"I think this administration is genuinely concerned about obesity. The rhetoric is great," Wootan told United Press International. "Rhetoric is a good start -- it's time to move to action."
When asked if he would increase regulation of the food industry, Thompson said he was reluctant to start prohibiting things. "I'm not in favor of that," he said.
Roland Sturm, a senior economist for The RAND Corp., a think tank in Santa Monica, Calif., told UPI he agreed PSA campaigns have not been effective in the past. Many of the problems leading to obesity are not being addressed by the current HHS campaign, he said.
Sturm said Americans actually are exercising more than they have ever been before, but there has been a fall in "incidental activity," such as walking to the store and walking to school. Much of that is due to the layout of residential areas, which are becoming more separated from stores and workplaces.
"Trying to make up for that by going to the gym is almost certainly not going to make up for that," Sturm said.
Such environmental issues will likely be included in the the Strategic Plan for NIH Obesity Research, said agency director, Dr. Elias Zerhouni. NIH has requested $440 million in fiscal year 2005 funding for obesity research, up 10 percent from the current year.
The institutes will continue a joint effort to research factors of obesity on multiple levels because addressing diet and exercise alone will not stop obesity, Zerhouni said.
First, the NIH hopes to prevent and treat obesity by identifying behavioral and environmental factors that contribute to obesity in children and adults. The research will include clinical and population-based studies that examine changes in diet, physical activity, and environmental factors that could prevent overeating and sedentary lifestyles.
NIH researchers are hoping to find ways to design an "optimal American society" for good health, Zerhouni said.
In addition, the NIH plans to examine surgical and medical treatment for obesity. Researchers hope to identify genetic factors that may lead to obesity, and identify biologic targets for drugs that could prevent and treat it.
Last, the NIH seeks to break the link between obesity and associated diseases, such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease and cancer.
Although obesity long has been known to lead to these diseases, more must be learned about the messages sent by fat cells to cause disease, Zerhouni said. "We want to sever that link," he added.
Gerberding said the CDC would reach out to employers and schools to encourage more exercise in the workplace by making staircases a more attractive option and pushing anti-smoking campaigns for schools.
She said her agency already has made its campus smoke-free and has encouraged employees to exercise, and Thompson said HHS was following suit as part of his "secretary's challenge."
Dr. Richard Carmona, the U.S. surgeon general, said Americans have been complacent for too long in fighting obesity, and added the effort must be an intergenerational one that encourages prevention among children and adults.
"This is a critical juncture in the life of the United States," he said.
David Kent is an intern for UPI Science News. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org