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Outside View: Sedentary kids-hyper lawyers

By PATRICIA F. MEAGHER, A UPI Outside View commentary

ALEXANDRIA, Va., July 20 (UPI) -- The rush to seize the initiative on childhood obesity and America's increasingly sedentary lifestyle is leading to a swirl of ideas on how to deal with it.

The best is exemplified by the Bush Administration's continuation of the President's Council on Physical Fitness.

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By encouraging the population to, in the president's words, "walk, run or sprint," the White House bully pulpit is being put to good use. While good nutrition is important, no matter how balanced your diet, there is no replacing exercise to stop America's ever expanding waist band.

This phenomenon of overweight children has been directly linked to the popularity of video games and the Internet. Instead of riding their bikes to the playground, kids prefer to sit in front of the computer and television.

Parents have the vital task of doing what previous generations of parents have done-- making sure kids get out of the house and play. But it is hard for today's parents to do this alone. With both mom and dad working, many parents look to the schools for help, but the already overburdened school systems are under the gun to teach Johnny how to read and with ever tightening budgets, they are being forced to cut physical education and after-school athletics.

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One of the solutions that many school boards are turning to in order to make up budget shortfalls is soft drink and snack food concessions. Children eager to avoid mystery meat in the lunch room are more than willing to shove quarters and dollars into vending machines to get a quick snack on the fly, and sales in schools provide the money local communities are either unable or unwilling to generate.

The sale of these beverages, which include bottled water and juice drinks in addition to sodas, yields tens of millions of dollars, which schools use to fund physical fitness programs and other extra-curricular activities.

Make no mistake, taking these machines out of schools will not lower consumption of soft drinks by children but it might sound the death knell for much needed physical fitness programs.

Enter the trial lawyers and the misinformed politicians of the nanny state to remind us that they know what's best. They are hatching a plan that would allow them to litigate and tax the food industry right out of business.

Pay real close attention to the motive here. These particular trial lawyers are more concerned about increasing the size of their wallets than helping America's children decrease their waistlines. They are looking for a fat payday and their model for this latest assault is the $368 billion dollar tobacco settlement.

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Arguing brand loyalty will not work like it did with tobacco, these trial lawyers want states to declare a billion dollar public health crisis and then sue to recover the costs of obesity related illness.

Since this is an election year, many politicians are as quick to play into the trial lawyers' hands as they are to take their money to fund their reelection campaigns. Sadly, state legislatures across the nation are considering legislation that would place additional taxes on soft drinks and snacks.

They say that it will combat childhood obesity. But clear thinking Americans should recognize the effort for what it is -- another means of filling state coffers.

Since when have soft drinks and snacks been lumped in with alcohol and cigarettes? The proponents of these so-called "sin taxes" say they can raise billions with a 1 cent per bottle tax. One cent is not going to stop anyone from buying a soft drink, so what this really amounts to is another cynical, punitive attempt to raise taxes, period. Obesity is merely the excuse of the month -- tax breaks for gym memberships and buying exercise equipment might be a better alternative.

Congress is on the right track with draft legislation authorizing billions to fund gym and nutrition classes and help communities build parks, bike paths and recreation centers to entice children away from their computers an into the fresh air of the great outdoors.

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Any pediatrician or nutritionist will tell you that a diet of moderation and exercise will keep Americas kids fit. It is proactive funding of exercise, not punitive taxes and lawsuits, that will help rid America of its spare tire.

(Patricia Meagher is president of the Meagher Company, a public relations and grassroots organization firm in Alexandria, Va. and the former legislative director of the American Conservative Union, the nation's oldest conservative organization.)

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