WASHINGTON (AFP) — US presidential hopefuls from both sides of the political divide are dishing out their plans for fighting obesity, which has reached epidemic proportions and is putting enormous strain on the health care system.
"As president, I would fight obesity every day," New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, a candidate for the Democratic nomination, said at a round-table talk on obesity in Washington on Wednesday.
"I would launch a national obesity prevention effort... We must help people understand that this is a disease, not a behavior," said Richardson, the only candidate to attend the discussion.
Two-thirds of US adults and some 25 million children are obese or overweight, and the fatness of the land is harming Americans' health, straining the health care system and threatening US competitiveness, a report published last month showed.
The rate of adult obesity more than doubled in percentage terms in the past 25 years across the United States, growing from 15 percent in 1978-80 to 32 percent in 2003-04, the "F as in Fat" report by the Trust for America's Health (TFAH) said.
In the same period, childhood obesity increased more than three-fold.
Poor nutrition and physical inactivity were putting Americans at greater risk for developing diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, stroke and even cancer, the report said.
"An obese individual costs 1,000 dollars more a year to the health care system than a healthy-weight person," said Peter Orszag of the Congressional Budgetary Office, commenting on the financial impact of obesity.
"Obesity is going to be very expensive to prevent, to treat and to ignore," said Morgan Downey of the Obesity Society, which hosted the gathering in Washington.
"It will be a major health challenge for the next president of the United States," he said.
One Republican candidate, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, can personally relate to the issue, having lost 120 pounds (54 kilograms) after being diagnosed with diabetes in 2003. He once weighed 300 pounds (136 kilos).
He has written a self-help book on how to lose weight titled "Quit Digging Your Grave with a Knife and Fork: A 12-Stop Program to End Bad Habits and Begin a Healthy Lifestyle."
While only Richardson attended the obesity round-table, most of the candidates -- seven Democrats and three Republicans -- were represented by key members of their campaign teams.
Laurie Rubiner, the legislative director for Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton's campaign, said "all the candidates take this problem very seriously."
"On this issue, health coverage does matter," Rubiner added. "No factor matters more than access to health insurance."
She said 23 percent of patients covered under Medicare, the US government health program for the disabled and people over 65, are responsible for 68 percent of Medicare expenditures for chronic illnesses such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
Dora Hughes, the health policy advisor to Illinois Democratic Senator Barack Obama, said obesity was the symptom of an ailing health care system.
David Bonior, campaign manager for Democratic candidate John Edwards, stressed that prevention was the key to fighting obesity and associated ailments, while Douglas Holtz-Eakin, policy director for Republican candidate John McCain, said: "Doing nothing is not an option."
Don Moran, the health care advisor to Republic nomination front-runner Rudolph Giuliani, gave the debate a political angle.
"There is a very clear distinction between Democrats and Republicans," he said.
"The question is whether you are going to advocate an extensive government program or if we are going to decide in the context of a free market."
Former Massachusetts Republican governor Mitt Romney's team took a similar tack.
"What makes health insurance work is choice. There is no one-size-fits-all approach," said Romney's domestic policy director Lanhee Chen.
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