Obesity in America (cont.)

Member: What stands in the way of requiring restaurants to provide nutrition information about the food products they serve?

Thompson: There is nothing that prevents a restaurant from doing just that, and I have been meeting with many restaurants, their association, the fast food industry and the soft-drink industry, to accomplish just that. I have been somewhat heartened, or at least encouraged by their responses, and I think we're already seeing some results by some of the companies that are putting out more information about nutrition and also putting out some items on their menu that can be classified as very heart healthy or otherwise helpful as far as good nutrition practices.

Member: Secretary Thompson, regarding your statement that the government should single out fast food places that make us fat, I disagree. Good health is based on personal choice. It is common knowledge that fast food places offer selections that aren't healthy, and selections that are. People who want to eat healthier need to start making healthier choices. Why should the U.S. government be expected to force Americans to only eat certain foods? All fast food places offer healthy food choices, and publicly post the nutritional information for ALL the food they serve. It is not the government's responsibility. What happened to the concepts of personal responsibility and personal accountability for one's decisions?

Thompson: I happen to be very much in the camp of allowing people to have personal choices, but I also happen to be in the business of health care. And when you look at the numbers that are driving health care costs and costing the economy, and especially the taxpayers, billions of dollars, it's time that we start reflecting and trying to influence and change personal decisions that will improve their health conditions.

For instance:

  • We spend $155 billion a year on tobacco-related illnesses, and 400,000 Americans die from those illnesses each year.
  • We spend $132 billion a year on diabetes-related illnesses, and 200,000 Americans are dying each year. You can change those individuals who are pre-diabetic, which amounts to 16 million more Americans, by encouraging them to lose 10 to 15 pounds, and by walking 30 minutes a day five or six times a week.
  • We spend $117 billion a year on obesity-related illnesses, from which 300,000 Americans die. Upwards to two-thirds of Americans are fat and obese.

Those three, tobacco, diabetes, and obesity, are causing tremendous financial hardships for individuals who are trying to develop and improve our health care system. It is necessary for government to try and improve the health of its citizens and that is what we're doing by discussing it here, getting out information to people all over America, and trying to convince Americans to eat properly and to exercise.

Moderator: Mr. Secretary, why not ban cigarettes? They have no redeeming qualities. It would certainly reduce the tobacco related illnesses and expenses.

Thompson: We need to regulate tobacco and as long as it is a commodity that is legal. People have become addicted to tobacco, and it is necessary for us to try and influence those individuals and offer the 70% of smokers that want to quit the opportunity to do so with programs that will assist them in accomplishing that objective. By banning the products outright, you will encourage black markets, smuggling, and other ways to circumvent the law, and it does not appear that anyone is willing to ban tobacco completely.

Member: Mr. Secretary, You lost a lot of weight recently. How did you do it?

Thompson: I have asked the whole Department of Health and Human Services, for those that need it, to go on a diet. If I am out asking people to change their lifestyles and to start watching what they eat and exercising, it would be hypocritical of me personally not to do the same thing. Therefore, the people in the Department of Health and Human Services have been advised by me to look healthier, be healthier, and to watch what you eat and to exercise.

I personally have reduced my food consumption and have reduced my starches and have increased my exercise program. I do 50 pushups in the morning and 50 pushups in the evening and I have a pedometer that I hand out to a lot of individuals to register how many steps I take each and every day, and it has become an addiction! I check throughout the day how many steps I've done, and if I am not close to my 10,000 steps, I decide to walk up the steps instead of taking the elevator, and at the end of the day I walk around the blocks to make sure that I have reached my goal of 10,000 steps today. I just looked at my pedometer and I have 6,284 steps today, which means I will have 4,715 steps to take before I finish the day. That is what I have done to lose 15 pounds.

Moderator: Well, we had better let you go get the other 4,715 steps done! Thank you for joining us today Sec. Thompson. We'll look for HHS support and information to help those who want to prevent disease by living a healthy lifestyle.

Thompson: Thank you very much for having me on today.

Moderator: Our discussion continues with Kelly Brownell, PhD, WebMD's own healthy weight management expert. Welcome back to WebMD Live, Dr. Brownell. Would you like to respond to the secretary's comments?

Brownell: One thing very positive the Secretary emphasized is the need to make sweeping changes in order to address the obesity problem. Having opportunities for people who seek help for their weight makes all the sense in the world. It is also nice that he is working with multiple parts of the business world to help this process along. History will tell whether working with the food industry to encourage changes will be successful or will be like working with the tobacco industry in the early days of the war on tobacco-related illnesses. If I were the president of a large food company, I would be happy to hear what the secretary is saying. I would be in the enviable position of introducing some healthier products, knowing that the majority of the population will continue to eat my high fat, high sugar, and high-calorie products.