By Chris Francescani and David Jones
NEW YORK/NEWARK, May 7 (Reuters) - New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who has struggled with obesity for much of his adult life, said on Tuesday he underwent lap band surgery in February to lose weight, a move he said had nothing to do with a possible run for the White House in 2016.
The blunt-spoken, popular Republican said he made the decision to protect his health and his family.
“It’s not a career issue for me,” said Christie. “It is a long-term health issue for me and that’s the basis on which I made this decision. It’s not about anything other than that.”
The 50-year-old Governor said he decided to pursue the surgery after other efforts to lose weight were unsuccessful.
Christie first revealed his decision in a Monday interview with the New York Post. “If asked about it I would have never lied about it but it’s not anybody else’s business but mine,” he told reporters on Tuesday.
Whatever his motivation, observers said, losing weight could help Christie overcome what has been seen as one of the most significant barriers to a run for the presidency - the health concerns associated with obesity. Christie rejected aggressive appeals from fellow Republicans to run in 2012.
“It’s impossible to separate the personal from the political with someone of his stature,” said Princeton University history professor Julian Zelizer. “He’s likely running for president, and there’s a good chance that he was at least thinking about as he tries to take care of his own health.”
Zelizer said that health questions are fair game for even potential presidential candidates.
“People were concerned that Barack Obama was a smoker. When you have older politicians like (Arizona Senator) John McCain, who has had skin cancer, people were worried about that,” he said.
Obesity is the second-leading cause of preventable death in the United States, second only to smoking, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
“A good personal policy decision may certainly have political benefits, but that’s not what motivates him,” former New Jersey Republican party Chairman Tom Wilson said. “When he says this is a choice based on long-term health and a desire to spend as much time on this Earth with his family, I believe him.”
Christie said losing 40 pounds (18 kg) since the procedure had not affected his ability to work, positively or negatively.
“I don’t feel any more effective today than I felt 12 weeks ago,” he said. “Folks who ask questions like that have absolutely no understanding of what’s going on or this process.”
Christie hired bariatric surgeon Dr. George Fielding, who heads New York University’s Weight Management Program, to perform the procedure, according to the New York Post. Fielding’s office did not immediately return a call for comment.
Lap band, or gastric banding, surgery is a procedure in which a silicone tube is wrapped around the upper part of the stomach, making it smaller and limiting the amount of food the stomach can hold.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the procedure in 2001 for severely obese adults with a body mass index of 40 or more. The FDA widened that approval in 2011 to include less obese adults.
A 6-foot (1.8 meter) tall, 300 pound (136 kg) man would have a body mass index of above 40.
Demand for the surgery has dropped since it was introduced, in part because many U.S. health insurance plans do not cover the procedure.
Singer Carnie Wilson, actor Brian Dennehy and New York Jets coach Rex Ryan all reportedly underwent lap band surgery.
Wilson had the procedure in January 2012, more than a decade after she underwent gastric bypass surgery, another weight-loss procedure that some studies have suggested in recent years may be safer and more effective than lap band surgery.
Christie is not the first prominent U.S. politician to struggle with weight. Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee lost more than 100 pounds (45 kg) between 2003 and 2006, and later ran an unsuccessful campaign for president in 2008.
Bill Clinton also took heat at times during his years in office for his affinity for fast food.
In February 2011, Christie told the conservative American Enterprise Institute that he was not “ready” to run for president. In January this year he told ABC News he would be “more ready” for the 2016 contest.
Christie, who gained a higher national profile for his handling of Superstorm Sandy’s hit to his home state last autumn, is up for re-election in New Jersey this November.
Former White House physician Connie Mariano in February told CNN that Christie was at a risk of having a heart attack or stroke if he did not slim down.
“It’s almost like a time bomb waiting to happen unless he addresses those issues before running for office,” Mariano said.
Christie shot back angrily, noting that Mariano had never examined him or reviewed his medical records and calling her “just another hack who wants five minutes on TV.”
The governor has also attempted to deflect concerns about his weight with humor. In an appearance on the Late Show with David Letterman early this year, he pulled out a donut mid-joke.
“I‘m basically the healthiest fat guy you’ve ever seen,” he said at the time.