Expert: For Obesity Solution, Look to Cigarettes
> 5/14/2008 1:01:12 PM

"The brakes on the obesity epidemic need to be policy-led and governments need to take centre stage," Swinburn, a researcher at Deakin University in Australia, told Reuters at the 2008 European Congress on Obesity.

"Governments have to lead the way they did with the tobacco epidemic. We need hard-hitting messages."

This quote comes from a Reuters report published yesterday, that posits that strategies that have proven successful with anti-smoking campaigns could prove useful in reducing obesity. Prof. Boyd Swinburn, an exercise and nutrition researcher, was referring to aggressive campaigns that have had success in reducing overall smoking, and have at the very least greatly increased the public awareness of smoking's dangers. As of 2007, smoking rates had actually plateaued, but the full effect of public bans and other measures has yet to be seen.

Swinburn's idea may not seem all that revolutionary when one considers the winds of change that have already begun to blow in some areas. New York City, the most populous city in the US, took steps two years ago to ban the use of artificial trans fats. And with a recent court ruling in their favor, the city is now set to go even further by forcing all restaurants to list nutrional information on their offerings.

The concept behind this most recent policy change shares many similarities with regulations that have been placed on cigarettes: the city has not reduced the public's ability to consume whatever they wish, but has instead made sure that consumers know exactly what they are putting into their bodies in the hopes that they will make healthier choices. This is a subtler, but perhaps even more effective, manner of influencing public behavior and, like anti-smoking action, it will also require a concerted public education component that highlights the risks of unhealthy eating and the health benefits that accompany better dietary decisions.

In many ways, the hardest part of the campaign against obesity is already under way. There was a time when cigarettes were thought by many to be not only healthy, but helpful or pallative. Today, you'd be hard pressed to find someone who believes as much, and similarly, it won't be too long before ideas about healthy eating have more thoroughly permeated our culture. The next step, also largely already under way in places like New York, requires that we enable consumers to make informed and healthy decisions. That means not only providing all the information necessary, but also providing cost effective, healthy alternatives.

Change will not be immediate, just as it has not been for the changes in smoking behavior. Obesity is a problem with a great many moving parts, some of which can be affected by regulation and PR efforts and others, like genetics, that will require further effort and exploration. In drawing our attention to the successes of the anti-smoking campaign, Dr. Swinburn has identified a viable model that we can follow to a healthier future.

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