"Let's Get to Work"

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HEAVY NEWS: HHS Secretary Thompson says prospects for controlling the epidemic may be improving

Six hundred and thirty two of the smartest thinkers on the issue of obesity are in Williamsburg, Va. this week for the TIME/ABC News Obesity Summit. There is no question in their minds as to the dimensions of the problem; the collective weight of approximately a billion obese people around the globe had caused the "the earth [to sink] a little bit lower" joked Tommy Thompson, U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services, in a keynote speech at Wednesday's opening session. In all seriousness, he reported that new analysis by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) had concluded that obesity "has overtaken tobacco" as the number one cause of preventable deaths in America. Still, Thompson said that the level of attention and energy that's begun to be directed at the problem led him to feel "cautiously optimistic" about the prospects for addressing the epidemic: "I think we are on the verge of reaching the tipping point on obesity."

Finding ways to attack and reverse the obesity epidemic is a key goal of the conference, which is sponsored by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the New Balance Foundation, Aetna and American Milk Processors. The gathering is a mix of physicians, researchers, members of the food and restaurant industry, policy makers and others.

Among the points made by speaker Dr. William Dietz of the CDC was that while 30% of American adults are now obese, the numbers are even worse for certain segments of the population. Among Mexican-American women, he said, the figure was 40%; among African-American women, it's 50%. These figures were more than enough to get the conversation started.

For his part, Thompson put the emphasis on the "personal responsibility" of each American to take control of his own weight. This past year, Thompson, the former governor of Wisconsin, decided to take his own advice that "small steps can make a huge difference. Thompson lost 15 pounds and began wearing a pedometer to ensure that he took at least 10,000 steps a day. Next, he "put [his] whole department on a diet." "My secretary's gone down 7 dress sizes," he said.

Thompson and other speakers also spoke of steps that could be taken by businesses and employers, insurance companies, and the food and restaurant industries that might make it easier for people to embark on a healthy diet. He praised Ruby Tuesday's for adding calorie information to their menus and he said that Applebees and McDonald's were taking steps towards adding healthier food choices. In addition, Kraft foods has agreed stop advertising some products to children.

Thompson feels that companies have an obligation to their employees. If workers were given an opportunity to exercise during the day, Thompson believes they would not only be healthier, but they would also be more productive. One example of a proactive organization is the CDC. The CDC "is trying to become a model worksite," says Dietz. The company has improved stairways to encourage walking and is even offering its 1500 employees an onsite garden market so they can easily access fresh fruits and vegetables.

Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, MD, President and CEO, The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation spoke of the foundation's effort to fund research into solutions for the crisis, but she warned that research takes time and action is needed now. "We cannot afford to surrender an entire generation to obesity while we're waiting to learn.

"Let's get to work."