Obesity task force urges action

WASHINGTON Tue May 11, 2010 6:03pm EDT

U.S. first lady Michelle Obama plays with children at a soccer clinic in Washington on March 5, 2010. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas

U.S. first lady Michelle Obama plays with children at a soccer clinic in Washington on March 5, 2010.

Credit: Reuters/Yuri Gripas

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - First lady Michelle Obama on Tuesday unveiled a 70-point plan for reducing childhood obesity within a generation, including a call for marketing healthier food, but stopping short of recommending regulatory action or a federal tax on sugary sodas.

The obesity task force report, requested by President Barack Obama, had been closely watched by the food and beverage industry.

Mrs. Obama took on childhood obesity as her signature issue and when the president put together an interagency panel in February to study the issue, he chose her to lead the campaign.

"We don't need new discoveries or new inventions to reverse this trend," Mrs. Obama said at a briefing on the White House Task Force on Childhood Obesity Report to the President.

"Again, we have the tools at our disposal to reverse it. All we need is the motivation, the opportunity and the willpower to do what needs to be done."

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says two-thirds of American adults and 15 percent of American children are overweight or obese -- a condition that puts them at risk of developing heart disease, diabetes and cancer.

Disease related to excess weight costs the United States about $150 billion per year in direct medical costs.

Many states tax highly sweetened food and beverages as a way to discourage their consumption but recent research shows those tax rates on soda have had a relatively small impact on adolescent and adult weights, the report said.

Administration officials said the task force suggested studying the impact of state and local taxes to further good nutrition, but there was no proposal for a federal tax on sugary sodas in the report.

A higher tax rate would likely have greater impact on consumption "as evidenced by the effects of the substantial rise in tobacco taxes," the report said.

Many food and beverage makers have agreed to limit marketing to children and are offering healthier products. McDonald's Corp offers more grilled chicken and fresh fruit, PepsiCo Inc is using whole grains in more of its snacks and Campbell Soup Co is lowering the amount of sodium in its Spaghettios pastas and V8 vegetable juices.

Edward Jones analyst Jack Russo said food and beverage companies can cash in on consumer demand for healthier products. "Folks, especially baby-boomers, will pay up for that so-called healthy option," he said.

HEALTHY MARKETING

The report's recommendations include encouraging the food and beverage industry, the media and the entertainment industry to market healthier foods to children.

Federal Trade Commission Chairman Jon Leibowitz said regulation should be a last resort.

"We have seen to some extent marketing of healthier foods to kids," he said. "But I also think that a regulatory approach is certainly not where we want to start."

There are important First Amendment concerns and if the government tries to regulate what foods can be marketed, "that would be a matter that would be in litigation for quite some time," Leibowitz said.

Instead, he suggested commending companies that are "really stepping up to the plate" and sometimes "shaming companies that aren't doing enough."

Kelly Brownell, director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University, said the report sent "a polite, but clear warning shot across the bow of industry" to take action.

"Industry will change its practices only when it has no other choice and we're getting to that point now," he said,

The panel also said economic incentives could help eradicate "food deserts" -- urban and rural areas with few, if any, supermarkets and grocery stores. The incentives would improve access to healthy, affordable food.

(Additional reporting by JoAnne Allen and Martinne Geller; Editing by Bill Trott and Cynthia Osterman)

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