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Can Capitol Hill Fight Fat?

New Coalition Seeks More Federal Help

Correction Appended

Public health and disease groups, along with the help of some industry sectors, are launching a new coalition today to persuade Congress to pass laws that combat obesity. But, so far, no fast food, snack food or soft drink associations have signed on to the effort, known as the Collaborative Campaign to End Obesity.

The campaign — whose corporate members include Johnson & Johnson and the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association— will look for opportunities to push a broad agenda in Congressional efforts including the upcoming farm bill and No Child Left Behind Act as well as transportation and Medicare bills. It wants changes to Medicare when it comes to obesity, more federal dollars spent researching the epidemic, restrictions on unhealthy foods sold at schools and a focus on physical activity.

Stephanie Silverman, a lobbyist with Venn Strategies, which represents the coalition, said that its legislative goals were born out of a conference earlier this month that included participants from more than 60 groups such as the American Heart Association, Center for Science in the Public Interest and Harvard University School of Medicine. The campaign currently is raising money for what members of the initiative say they hope will be a beginning budget in the low seven figures.

“If we have the resources, we will do advertising and big grass roots,” Silverman said. She added that the coalition hopes to bring fast food and other food groups into the fold.

“Getting the food industry and the public health community to agree on a common area that needs to be addressed is easier than getting agreements on the details of how to address it,” said Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy for the Center for Science in the Public Interest. But, she added, “I think the industry sees the writing on the wall.”

A spokeswoman for the National Restaurant Association said that her organization had just learned of the new obesity campaign and was going to review the coalition’s legislative plans, but had no comment on it yet.

Other food and beverage groups said they’re already doing plenty to address obesity.

Jim McCarthy, president of the Snack Food Association, said that his group has voluntarily agreed to limits on the fat content of snack foods sold at schools as part of the Clinton Foundation’s Alliance for a Healthier Generation.

“The bottom line is we don’t think that foods are either good or bad, there are good and bad diets,” McCarthy said. “Schools themselves should have the opportunity to choose what they are selling.”

McCarthy said his snack-food makers, which include Kraft and Frito Lay, came to Capitol Hill last week to push for a physical education mandate as part of No Child Left Behind.

One restaurant and food industry lobbyist said the coalition represents the usual suspects — industry representation is limited to companies that profit from obesity treatment or fitness programs. A spokesman for Johnson & Johnson said the company does not have an obesity drug on the market but does have a surgical program as part of its hospital business. The company also has a longtime fitness and disease-prevention program for its employees.

Kevin Keane, a senior vice president with the American Beverage Association, which so far is not a part of the coalition, also is working through the Alliance for a Healthier Generation.

“As far as we’re concerned, we’re the one industry that’s ahead of the curve on this,” he said. “A lot of individuals and groups are doing a lot of talking about school nutrition and obesity, and only one group really is doing anything about it, and that’s the American Beverage Association.”

And Dagmar Farr, the Food Marketing Institute’s group vice president for legislative and consumer affairs, said she wasn’t familiar with the new coalition, but said the food retail industry has its own initiatives to prevent obesity.

“The industry is fully aware of the challenges we face,” said PepsiCo’s top lobbyist, Galen Reser. “If it’s finger-pointing and blame assessing, then that’s not very productive. But we say all the time, there’s an inactivity epidemic. That’s really what’s changed. Kids are spending four to six hours a day in front of screens.”

Elena Rios, president and CEO of the National Hispanic Medical Association, which is part of the new coalition, said that part of the campaign is to convince lawmakers to change the Medicare reimbursement structure so that doctors treating obesity itself get reimbursed by Medicare.

Rios added that, in the reauthorization of the farm bill this year, she wants school lunch and other programs to include funding for education plans about healthy eating — an added government expense that Rios said will save money in the long run.

“If you can educate young people and parents, you’re investing in preventive services,” she said, “so that when the kids become 30 years old, they’re not going to be going to hospital emergency rooms with heart attacks. We’re trying to lower the burden on all taxpayers.”

Jennifer Mullin, a spokeswoman for Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), agreed. Harkin has introduced three bills this Congress to fight obesity, including one that would create a federal task force on the subject, call for nutrition labeling on menus in chain restaurants and expand federal research into finding obesity solutions.

Harkin, who attended the obesity summit this month, also has introduced a bill that would provide tax credits to companies that spend money on workout rooms or other wellness programs for their employees and another bill that would make sure government nutrition guidelines apply to food sold everywhere on school grounds, not just in the lunchroom.

“It’s futile to have healthy choices in the lunchroom if students can just skip the lunchroom and get candy bars and milkshakes,” Mullin said.

Rios said that Harkin’s bills fit in with the campaign’s agenda.

“That’s why it was such a great idea for this coalition to be put together. All these organizations were already working on these things, but never worked together,” Rios said. “I think this is going to really take on a life of its own over the next few years. It’s going to take Congress to change what’s happened over the last 20 years.”

Correction: May 21, 2007
The article reported that the Grocery Manufacturers Association, ABC/Disney and America’s Health Insurance Plans have joined the Collaborative Campaign to End Obesity. While they participated in a meeting where the new coalition’s legislative agenda was formed, none has officially joined.

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