Obesity Epidemic Needs Government Rules: NYC Health Chief

Governments should regulate food companies on unhealthy ingredients in products that contribute to obesity, an epidemic that now affects 1-in-3 Americans and costs the U.S. $150 billion a year, said New York City Health Commissioner Thomas Farley.

More than education and voluntary action by companies is needed, Farley said. New York’s limit on sugary soft drink sales is one example of the steps governments must take to stop the rise of obesity, he said today at a press conference on the topic held by the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Publicly traded food companies, charged with making a profit for their shareholders, can’t be relied upon to make their foods more nutritious, Farley said. New York City approved a measure last week to restrict sales of sugary soft drinks to no more than 16 ounces a cup in food venues, has already banned trans fats in food and is working with food companies to lower salt content.

“There is a clear role for government in the solution,” Farley said. “Obesity rates have been rising considerably for the last 30 to 40 years. If we don’t do anything, I think it is a fair prediction that they will continue to rise.”

About 60 percent of adults in New York City are overweight or obese and 1-in-8 have diabetes, which is often caused by obesity, Farley said. A person with a body mass index of at least 30 is considered obese, according to the National Institutes of Health. The BMI is calculated using height and weight. A man who is 6 feet tall and weighed more than 220 pounds would be considered obese using the formula.

Soda Size

The size of a soda has increased from about 6.5 ounces in the 1960s to 20 ounces today, according to Farley. He said surveys have found that Americans eat 200 to 600 more calories a day than they did in the 1970s and that sugary drinks are playing a role in that added calorie consumption.

The city’s soda size rule is not government restriction on choice, adding that people can consume as much as they want at restaurants as long as it isn’t with a cup larger than 16 ounces, Farley said.

“While the idea of government regulation on portion size is new, we think it makes all the sense in the world,” Farley said. “It is entirely manageable by the food industry.”

The American Beverage Association and the National Restaurant Association opposed the restrictions. Calories from sugary beverages as a percentage of Americans’ diets are declining, both groups say. U.S. soft-drink sales have fallen for seven straight years, according to Beverage Digest.

The health department said it received 38,000 comments on the restriction, with 32,000 in support and 6,000 opposed.

To contact the reporter on this story: Shannon Pettypiece in New York at spettypiece@bloomberg.net;

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Reg Gale at rgale5@bloomberg.net

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