WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. government plans to increase funding to battle obesity and views healthcare reform as an opportunity to encourage better eating habits, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said on Tuesday.
The Obama administration, as part of its economic stimulus package, will give states and local governments more money to control obesity, including investing in public transportation, Sebelius told an obesity conference in Washington.
She added that legislation in Congress to overhaul the $2.5 trillion healthcare industry could boost programs to get more fruits and vegetables into school lunches and encourage grocery stores to sell more fresh produce in poor communities.
“We finally have a plan,” Sebelius told the conference, which was sponsored by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Washington.
She said most of $1 billion appropriated by Congress for disease prevention as part of the stimulus plan would go to a CDC-planned initiative to fight obesity, heart disease and other chronic conditions.
“A significant amount of the money will go to help states and communities attack obesity and other public health challenges,” Sebelius said.
A report released at the conference on Monday found that obesity costs the U.S. health system $147 billion a year.
“The American Cancer Society estimates that all cancers combined cost our healthcare system $93 billion a year. So, ending obesity would save our healthcare system 50 percent more dollars than curing cancer,” Sebelius said.
She praised a 2006 initiative headed by former President Bill Clinton and the American Heart Association that persuaded soft-drink makers to limit some of the sugary drinks sold in school vending machines.
CDC director Dr. Thomas Frieden, who has in the past supported a soft drink tax, told the meeting it may be difficult to get political support for such a move.
Sebelius said the federal government could do more to encourage healthy habits, including serving better meals in schools, senior centers and government buildings and encouraging grocery stores to open in neglected, poor and rural neighborhoods.
She also called for more physical education classes for children and investments to encourage walking, biking and use of public transportation. Without giving details, she said the government would fund new programs and praised one that buses girls to dance lessons in California.
A report from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation released at the conference found that many school districts were inconsistent in promoting healthier eating. Strong nutritional requirements often went hand-in-hand with weak restrictions for food sold a la carte or in vending machines.
Only 18 percent of elementary students were enrolled in a districts with strong policies requiring daily recess.
Editing by Paul Simao