Lawmakers aim to reduce childhood obesity

Posted Feb. 24, 2009, at 8:32 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Lawmakers and health advocates announced Tuesday a multipronged approach to fighting childhood obesity that aims better to inform restaurant-goers about food on the menu and to reinstate gym class as a part of the school day.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said that obesity has become a nationwide epidemic in recent decades, rising nearly 100 percent and tripling among teens in 20 years.

In Maine, obesity rates have risen from 12 percent of residents in 1990 to 26 percent in 2006, and roughly two-thirds of Mainers are either clinically obese or overweight. Maine also has the dubious distinction of having the highest childhood obesity rate — roughly 24 percent — in New England, according to a 2008 report by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Lawmakers discussed three approaches to the obesity problem on Tuesday:

— Requiring chain restaurants, including fast-food operations, to post caloric information about food on menus and menu boards.

— Encouraging policies that allow kindergarten through eighth-grade students to receive at least 30 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity daily, or 150 minutes weekly through physical education programs.

— Requiring school nurses to collect anonymous body-mass index figures for children so that the state can track trends.

The restaurant bill, which would apply to chains with 15 or more locations nationwide, is modeled after a measure that was enacted by New York City last year. Other cities and the state of California have adopted similar measures.

“Parents are trying to make decisions for their kids about what they should eat, and they don’t have the basic information,” said House Speaker Hannah Pingree, D-North Haven, the bill’s lead sponsor. “We’re not trying to tell people what to eat. We just want them to have basic information.”

But Dick Grotton, president and CEO of the Maine Restaurant Association, said his organization and its national counterpart support an initiative moving through Congress to create a federal nutrition labeling standard for the food service industry. Grotton said a national standard makes more sense than different states and cities adopting different requirements.

“Anything that creates another patchwork quilt really doesn’t serve anyone well,” Grotton said. “We have been through this twice before in Maine and it has been defeated twice before in Maine.”

The measure on physical education in schools, sponsored by Rep. Lisa Miller, D-Somerville, is an outgrowth of the recommendations from a work group called PE4ME. Somerville, who has a background in public health, said studies show that students who have daily physical education classes are considerably less likely to become obese.

The third bill, sponsored by Rep. Helen Rankin, D-Hiram, would direct the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention to work with the Department of Education to collect body mass index data on children to track trends in the overall population. Body mass index is a widely used measure comparing an individual’s height and weight.

Rankin, a longtime school nutritionist, said she is extremely alarmed at the changes she has seen in children’s weight. Children who are overweight or obese not only have a higher likelihood of lifelong health struggles — such as diabetes and heart disease — but they also often end up being self-conscious of their weight.

“Folks, we have a wake-up call,” Rankin said at the press conference, held as part of an American Heart Association luncheon. “We must do something about this.”

Representatives from the American Heart Association, the Health Policy Partners of Maine and the medical community also spoke in support of the measures.

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