Curbing obesity in Maine

Posted May 18, 2009, at 6:34 p.m.

I am the director of Employee Health Improvement at MaineHealth and a registered dietitian. I am writing in response to the column by Richard Grotton from the Maine Restaurant Association concerning chain restaurant menu labeling, “Make caloric data available nationwide” (BDN, May 13).

Our state, our employers and our residents are currently facing a financial crisis because of the prevalence of obesity and people who are overweight. It doesn’t matter that Maine is 34th in the national obesity ranking. What matters is that more than 60 percent of the Maine population is either overweight or obese. We are the fattest state in New England. That is compelling — and unacceptable.

The federal legislation, the LEAN Act, referred to by Mr. Grotton and supported by the National Restaurant Association is opposed by many major health organizations. This bill would pre-empt all state and local menu labeling mandates and does not require that nutrition information be disclosed specifically on the menu board. Studies show that less than 5 percent of consumers are likely to see nutrition information if it is not on the menu board.

The bill proposed in Maine, LD 1259 would require that all chains of 15 or more restaurants post calories on the menu board at the point of sale where it is clearly visible to consumers. This Maine legislation seeks to establish a meaningful obesity prevention policy and help consumers make informed decisions.

According to a Topline Report commissioned by MaineHealth and Anthem, Maine taxpayers and employers are paying $4,149 per Maine worker per year for overweight, obesity and lack of physical activity. This expense considers medical care, worker’s compensation and lost productivity. When direct and indirect costs are combined, the total impact on the State of Maine of the three risk factors exceeds $2.5 billion. This burden far outweighs the cost that chain restaurant owners will incur if the menu labeling legislation is passed. I would also suggest that if these restaurant owners provide health care coverage to their employees, their medical claims costs related to people being overweight and obesity (and the chronic health conditions that ensue) exceed the expense of changing a menu board.

Our state has an interest and a stake in reducing the cost of obesity and obesity-related diseases and in promoting informed decision making by consumers. While no one has claimed that menu labeling alone will solve the obesity crisis, we can implement programs and adopt regulations that partially ameliorate a problem. Chain restaurant menu labeling should be one component in the arsenal of programs and regulations to combat obesity.

Laurie Jones Mitchell is the director of Employee Health Improvement for MaineHealth.

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