WASHINGTON (Reuters) - One way to achieve bipartisanship in Washington may be to tackle an issue everyone can agree on — the childhood obesity epidemic.
The Obama administration and members of Congress from both parties agree action is needed.
Obesity-related diseases cost the United States an estimated $147 billion each year, nearly 10 percent of all medical spending, according to U.S. federal agencies.
“We don’t have to debate the issue,” Senator Christopher Dodd, a Connecticut Democrat, said at hearing last week.
“In a city that seems absolutely frozen in this inability to come to agreement on, at least, what the problems are, there is no disagreement here.”
But there is a long distance between agreeing that a problem exists and determining how to tackle it.
The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee is just beginning discussions on what Congress might do, said an aide to committee chairman Tom Harkin.
“Senator Harkin and I agree totally on the need for prevention and disease management. We may differ on how we get there, slightly, but we know we have to get there,” said Republican committee member Richard Burr.
The Oakland, California-based advocacy group Children Now is hoping that Congress gives regulators power to crack down on junk food advertising, which its president Ted Lempert called “a huge contributor to the epidemic.”
“It’s a difficult political hurdle but it’s a necessary political hurdle as part of this issue,” Lempert said in an interview. “If the focus is solely on our kids, I think that hurdle can be overcome even in our current partisan climate.”
On Monday the American Beverage Association reported its members, including The Coca-Cola Co, Dr Pepper Snapple Group and PepsiCo, had cut shipments of full-calorie soft drinks to schools by 95 percent as part of a voluntary agreement brokered by the Clinton Foundation and the American Heart Association.
The Grocery Manufacturers Association, which represents food and beverage makers, said its members have in recent years voluntarily reduced snack food ads aimed at children.
“Two-thirds of advertising seen on children’s programming is now for healthy food and active lifestyles,” GMA vice president Scott Faber said.
Faber said the group was also working with Congress on legislation that would focus on prevention, expanding opportunities for physical activity and getting healthy foods to people in areas where grocery stores are sparse.
U.S. officials estimate a third of U.S. children are obese or overweight. Studies have shown that obese children are more likely to stay obese as adults, and that they develop chronic conditions at younger ages, burdening the healthcare system.
First lady Michelle Obama is leading a campaign to eliminate childhood obesity within a generation.
Both the White House and Congress can look to the state level to see examples of successful bipartisan action.
“There’s a long history of governors working together across party lines for change that turns out to be effective and sustainable in the long term,” said Bill Galston of the Brookings Institution.
The National Governors Association launched a childhood obesity prevention program in 2005 and last week reported on the efforts of 15 states. The NGA said there are “few easy answers,” but “a coordinated multi-sector approach” is an essential first step.
Editing by Alan Elsner