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Weight Watchers Nibbles at the Influence Game

Weight Watchers is eponymous with dieting, but its brand has little recognition as a player on Capitol Hill.

The company has morphed from one woman holding meetings in her Queens, N.Y., living room into a worldwide business helping members fight the battle of the bulge. But Weight Watchers has largely eschewed the halls of Congress.

“It never really occurred to us” to get involved in D.C., CEO David Kirchhoff said in a recent interview at the Longworth cafeteria.

“As an organization, we keep our heads down and focus on what we focus on,” he added, noting the company’s dramatic growth over nearly 50 years in business. Weight Watchers now has about 1.4 million members and another 1 million online users.

But as the health care debate roared last fall, Kirchhoff decided to wade into Washington to offer his company’s expertise on the obesity epidemic.

“We had no idea what would be the smart way of lobbying or who we would even talk to,” Kirchhoff said.

So the company hired Wexler & Walker Public Policy Associates to help it navigate Congress and the Obama administration. With firm lobbyists Tim Hannegan, Marla Voirst and former Rep. Bud Cramer (D-Ala.) leading the effort, Kirchhoff said, he learned the basics of lobbying and was able to gain entree to Congressional offices. Weight Watchers spent $120,000 during the first six months of 2010 on federal lobbying, according to Senate disclosure records.

But despite breaking into the influence game, the dieting enterprise wasn’t using the typical playbook of companies lobbying for a legislative break or to insert specific language into a provision.

And Weight Watchers wasn’t looking to become a political powerhouse.

It doesn’t have a political action committee, and Kirchhoff said he doesn’t expect to have an in-house K Street operation in the near future.

“We’re not Pepsi, Google or Microsoft — that’s not the role we’re playing,” Kirchhoff said.

Instead, Kirchhoff said his company wanted to join the dialogue that was filled with academics and policy experts to contribute what Weight Watchers has learned from practical hands-on experience on how to address the obesity epidemic.

It’s an epidemic that Kirchhoff understands personally.

He considers himself a true Weight Watchers believer because the program worked for him.

Practicing What He Preaches

About 12 years ago, Kirchhoff’s doctor told him he needed to lose about 40 pounds, otherwise he would be facing a lifetime of medication to combat his high cholesterol and high blood pressure.

After joining Weight Watchers as an employee and member in 2000, Kirchhoff successfully lost the weight and is now a “lifetime” member. President and CEO since 2007, Kirchhoff said he had his “Jerry Maguire” moment last year, where he wanted to share his manifesto of how to best address obesity.

With the help of Wexler & Walker, Kirchhoff’s vision turned into a white paper concluding that the government has a stake in fixing the health care crisis because it isn’t going to fix itself.

“What’s hard is getting people to make the lifestyle choices, and habits have to be established,” Kirchhoff said.

In addition to sharing company research with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Obama administration, Weight Watchers has also targeted Congressional offices and think tanks to discuss the company’s philosophy and its experience working with people trying to lose weight.

“We’re more trying to inform on the broad policy,” Kirchhoff said. “The health care system is much more about sick care rather than preventing it in the first place.”

To that end, the company wants new policies that give people more of a stake in the health care system. Kirchhoff also said the food labels could be “cleaned up” and believes that it should be easier for people to use their flexible spending accounts for weight loss counseling.

And while the weight loss industry has fought federal intervention, Kirchhoff said it “probably would be better if my industry would be regulated.”

Grading Longworth

While Congress just passed health care reform, its cafeterias could still use some work, according to Kirchhoff. The Weight Watchers CEO perused the Longworth House Office Building’s cafeteria offerings Thursday and gave the food options a B-plus, while the merchandising of food received a B-minus or C-plus. In particular, Kirchhoff said putting chips and candy bars at the registers was a sign of promoting unhealthy options for last-minute impulse buys.

“I mostly found myself tempted to get stuff that is not healthy for me,” Kirchhoff said of the cafeteria.

Even though the health care reform bill is law, that doesn’t mean Weight Watchers’ stint in Washington is over.

“We have an important role to play,” Kirchhoff said. “This is a huge government issue. … Government has the most at stake because it is the last man standing in the form of health care.”

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