View From Washington

Back to School Health

When celebrities come to our nation’s capital, it’s always bound to be interesting. Over the past few weeks, Capitol Hill has convened a number of hearings on the issue of childhood obesity, including a hearing in the House Committee on Education and Labor in July entitled “The Benefits of Physical Education for our Nation’s Children.”

The star witness at this hearing was celebrity fitness expert Richard Simmons - yes, the guy with the red shorts and glittered shirts. He delivered quite possibly the funniest line heard on the Hill this summer when he declared, “The No Child Left Behind Act was supposed to make our kids well rounded but instead it has just made them rounded.”

It was a great line - despite the fact that the nation’s obesity epidemic began well before No Child Left Behind became law. In fact, data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey shows that the prevalence of obesity in children has nearly tripled in nearly all age groups beginning around 1980. But Richard’s quip was effective because it perfectly illustrates the point that schools today do not place a high enough priority on promoting physical activity.

And while it’s easy to blame the schools (or the fast food chains, or soda manufacturers, or advertisers, or fill in the name of another villain here) the reality is that no one sector of society can be expected to reverse the obesity epidemic alone. Obesity is not just one problem but ten problems, all of which reflect a shift in the culture that has made making healthy choices difficult. Solutions will require the combined efforts of employers, communities, health care purchasers and providers, public health agencies and many others. But we have to start somewhere and it makes sense to start with schools for the simple reason that this is where the kids are, and they provide a venue to focus on both healthy eating and physical activity.

So as we prepare for the beginning of another school year, what can MCH leaders do to help address the childhood obesity epidemic? It is clear that leaders have made tremendous strides in recent years to build partnerships with education agencies to address public health issues ranging from immunization to SCHIP enrollment to teen pregnancy prevention. The potential impact the obesity epidemic has in shortening the life expectancy of our current generation of children presents a red alert to leverage those partnerships to focus more strongly on the need to reverse the epidemic of obesity in America. Both HRSA’s Maternal and Child Health Bureau and CDC’s Division of Adolescent Health have also provided leadership on this issue, and none of us are under the illusion that this work is easy, but the stakes are too high not to make it a higher priority.

And speaking of priorities, a recent AMCHP analysis of the Title V Information System shows that of the 59 states and territories, 48 have identified addressing obesity, promoting nutrition, or increasing physical activity in children and families as one of their Title V MCH Program priority needs. We used this data to send a message to Capitol Hill showing that while state MCH programs recognize the priority, they have been severely hampered in responding effectively due to the erosion in federal Title V MCH Block Grant funding in recent years, which is down over $60 million since FY 2003. We also shared with key staff how MCH programs often partner with other state programs such as Chronic Disease, Medicaid and WIC to administer state-wide programs, and could provide additional leadership with an investment of adequate resources.

So this year, as kids go back to school, AMCHP is making plans to go back to Capitol Hill with the message that state MCH programs need full funding to address obesity and the range of other health issues that prevent MCH populations from achieving optimal health. Please let us know what’s working in your state, and together we can hopefully bring up our grade on this critical subject.

In other news from Capitol Hill, the House of Representatives passed a measure in July that has been under consideration for a decade to give the FDA power to regulate tobacco. The bill passed by a veto proof margin in the House, and while a companion Senate measure has 56 co-sponsors it has not yet been scheduled for a vote in that chamber. It is unclear if the Senate would have the votes to over-ride a promised veto from the White House, but AMCHP will continue to monitor the issue and support efforts to address the top preventable killer in America.

Congress also completed action in July on legislation intended to safeguard children from dangerous toys, protect whistleblowers, and revise the nation’s product safety laws. The bill also will ban lead in children’s products, mandate toy safety standards, raise fines for manufacturing faulty products, and restrict certain plastic softeners called phthalates in children’s toys. At press time the president was expected to sign this bill (H.R. 4040) into law, and we commend this effort to assure safer, healthier kids.