‘War’ on Obesity Needed for U.S. Health, Milken Says

The U.S. medical-system overhaul will improve the nation’s health and cut costs only if it’s followed by initiatives to curtail the epidemic of obesity and diabetes, said Michael Milken, founder of the Milken Institute.

Milken and health industry executives speaking at a panel presentation on the health-care overhaul today called for a national “war” on obesity modeled after the public campaign against smoking that has slashed rates of cigarette use among Americans. The panel was part of the institute’s annual global conference.

A survivor of prostate cancer, Milken wrote in the first-quarter issue of the Milken Institute Review this year that he wants to see the $5 billion budget of the National Cancer Institute doubled over five years. Treating preventable diseases in the U.S. costs $1.3 trillion a year, according to a 2007 report by the institute, a Santa Monica-based research group.

“There is nothing that would do more for the U.S. economy than eliminating heart disease” and other conditions linked to obesity, Milken said at the panel.

While the U.S. health system generally fails to emphasize prevention, the efforts against smoking show such efforts can succeed, said Jay Gellert, president and chief executive officer of HealthNet Inc., a Woodland Hills, California-based health insurer.

Prevention Model

“We have a model for dealing with prevention,” Gellert said during the panel discussion. “America has the best results on smoking of any country. We took it off TV, taxed it to death. But we’re not going to war against obesity.”

Increasing taxes on products high in fat, sugar and salt such as soft drinks, snacks and fast food would steer people away from unhealthy foods while creating revenue that could pay for education and prevention efforts, said Ardis Hoven, chair-elect of the board of trustees of the American Medical Association.

The health overhaul law passed last month by Congress will provide medical access to 32 million uninsured Americans, giving doctors a chance to help people earlier in the course of a disease, when it’s cheaper and more effective, said Hoven, an infectious disease specialist in Lexington, Kentucky.

The health overhaul is “a mixed blessing,” said Gellert. “We’re finally covering people who need to be covered. The down side is that this bill fundamentally is uneconomic. The costs are not bearable in our economy unless we find a way to deal with the cost issue at the same time as we deal with the coverage issue.”

Government Action

The government must play a key role in creating a health system more focused on wellness and prevention, Milken said. He said that rates of diabetes in the U.S. declined only twice in the 20th century, during the two World Wars.

“We were asked to sacrifice on butter, fat, etc. and to walk more,” Milken said. “The U.S. ran these ads all through World War II -- please eat vegetables and let the troops eat the butter. During those times, people got healthier.”

Lack of exercise among Americans, starting with children, also contributes to the country’s health concerns, Milken said. Only 29 percent of U.S. high schools now provide daily physical education classes for students, he said.

“We know you will die prematurely if you’re overweight,” Milken said. “It’s an issue of priorities.”

The U.S. also risks losing its global leadership role in health and science research to Asian countries led by China, said David Brennan, chief executive officer of London-based AstraZeneca Plc.

“The Chinese are investing billions of dollars in creating science parks, and recruiting” Chinese citizens trained as scientists in the U.S. to return to their home country, Brennan said. “They have a 20- to 40-year plan to bring that expertise back to China.”

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