This was a presentation delivered at the first Weight of the Nation conference in July 2009. The approach toward Big Soda is mostly voluntary, lauding the Clinton initiative about reducing the access to sugary drinks in schools. Two years later, the question asked to Secretary Sebelius is about producing a Surgeon General's Report about sugary drinks. When will she give an answer?
Her conclusion in 2009 was:
Reducing obesity - especially for children - would be one of the biggest steps we could take towards this better health future... Indeed. So what about sugary drinks?
I want to thank everyone who made today possible, especially Dr. Frieden who
was such a trailblazer as New York City Public Health Commissioner and who has
done such a great job in his first few months as the head of CDC.
I'd also like to recognize Dr. Howard Koh, our new Assistant Secretary for
Health, who will be heading the HHS Office of Public Health and Science.
With their leadership and the incredible talent we have from top-to-bottom at
the CDC and throughout the Department, we're in excellent position to move
forward with our wellness and prevention policies.
I'd also like to acknowledge President Clinton who's made such an important
difference on these issues and others through his Foundation. And who served his
country so well both as President and as Governor of Arkansas (which is only
about 50 miles away from being the best state in the country).
Finally, to the CDC and all the other organizations who worked so hard to put
on this event and draw attention to this important issue - thank you for your
efforts. This is the first Weight of the Nation conference, but I am sure it
won't be the last.
Yesterday, we heard some bad news and some good news.
The bad news was that over two thirds of American adults - and almost one out
of every five American children - are obese or overweight.
We heard about how obesity increases your risk of heart disease, certain
cancers, and stroke. About how obesity is the single biggest predictor of
And we heard from a new report that says obesity costs our health system as
much as $147 billion a year, a number that has almost doubled since the last
time the CDC calculated it in 1998.
To put that figure in perspective, the American Cancer Society estimates that
all cancers combined cost our health care system $93 billion a year. So ending
obesity would save our health care system fifty percent more dollars than curing
That's the bad news. But here's the good news. No, ending obesity won't be
easy. But the CDC also released a second report yesterday.
That report asked, what can we do about the growing costs of obesity? And it
came back with a heartening answer: it turns out, there's a lot we can do.
Like the school district in Southern California that got almost half their
kids to start eating at the salad bar by serving fresh, local produce instead of
greens that looked like they had been under saran wrap for the last month.
Or the city in Northern California, which got twice as many girls to go to
dance class as the neighboring community by providing buses to drive them
It won't be easy. But this report is a big step towards developing a national
blueprint for how to get Americans to slim down while trimming a significant
chunk of our health care costs at the same time.
And it's a major part of the broader commitment the Obama administration has
made to transforming our health care system from a sickness system to a wellness
system, a commitment that will make us not just a healthier, but also a
But before I tell you about some of the exciting plans the administration has
in this area, I want to talk for a few moments about childhood obesity.
If you asked anyone in this room what the most important group of Americans
to help was, they'd say children.
That's because we all love our children. But it's also because children have
an advantage on the rest of us: they're going to be around a lot longer.
If you give a child a good education, she's going to be a productive worker
and taxpayer for fifty years. There's the same payoff for investments in health.
If we can teach our children healthy habits when they're young, they can
benefit from these habits for the rest of their lives.
But right now, they're learning the wrong habits. The share of children that
are overweight has quadrupled in the last 40 years. Type 2 diabetes used to be
called "adult-onset" diabetes. Now doctors don't use the term because so many
kids are getting it.
Overweight adolescents have a 70 percent chance of becoming overweight or
obese adults. According to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation: "Childhood weight
problems can lead to complications such as elevated blood pressure and
cholesterol, joint problems, type 2 diabetes, gallbladder disease, asthma,
depression and anxiety."
No wonder some scientists have said that this might be the first generation
of Americans in 200 years to have shorter life spans than their parents.
If there was an epidemic of little kids getting cancer, it would be a
national crisis. But because it's obesity and the damage doesn't come until
later in life, we've been slow to act. I'm counting on people in this room to
tell Americans that as our children's weight is growing, their lives are
shrinking. We can't ignore this problem any longer.
Right now, you're might be saying to yourself: if we've been concerned about
obesity for so many years and we haven't done much about it, why is anything
going to change now?
The truth is that our country had the same problem trying to lose weight as
Americans do. A poll I saw from Time Magazine a few years ago explains it pretty
The poll found that about six in ten Americans wanted to lose weight. So
about six in ten Americans are obese or overweight and about six in ten
Americans want to lose weight. Sounds about right.
But here's the problem. Only three in ten Americans said they were actually
trying to lose weight. And only one in ten said they had a specific plan to do
That's what we were like as a country. We wanted to lose weight. We knew it
was important. But we didn't have a plan. Now, thanks to research like the kind
we saw yesterday the CDC report, we have a much better idea about what
strategies work and how to implement them. We don't just have good ideas. We
have ideas that are tested. And whose success can be measured.
In other words, we finally have a plan.
So what's that plan? Well you heard a lot about it yesterday in the findings
from the Measures Project.
The first thing is that if the government wants people to start eating
healthy food, we need to start serving it. That means offering more nutritious
meals not just in public schools but also in child care centers, rec centers,
senior centers, and other government buildings.
And we need to serve these healthy meals at a price that people can afford.
Some people say that if kids don't want to eat healthy, they're not going to no
matter what. But there are a handful of high school cafeterias around the
country that would disagree. They cut the prices of fruits and carrots and sales
started to rise.
No one has done more in this area than President Clinton. His foundation
struck a deal with three of the biggest soda manufacturers in the world to stop
selling high-calorie drinks in schools. Kids spend half their day in school.
Now, thanks to President Clinton, they're going to spend half their day not
drinking sodas and sugary fruit juices.
The second thing we need to do is give people more healthy options in their
own neighborhoods. Many rural Americans and urban Americans have the same
problem: they don't have any supermarkets that sell fresh produce where they
When you can't buy fresh produce, it's hard to eat healthy. One study found
that the amount of fruits and vegetables eaten in African-American neighborhoods
went up by a third for each supermarket you added.
This isn't rocket science. People want to eat healthy diets, but they tend to
eat whatever's convenient and affordable. If we want to reduce obesity, we need
to make eating fruits and vegetables convenient and affordable for all
There's a whole lot more we can do. We need more phys-ed classes where kids
run around the whole time and fewer where they wait around to use the same piece
We need more investments in making cities safe for walking and biking. We
need more investments in public transportation. (Those of you from DC will know
that just walking up the escalator at the Dupont Circle metro is as good as 20
minutes on the stairmaster).
These are investments that can be made at the neighborhood, city, and state
levels. Everyone from parents to schools to local governments to food and
beverage companies has a role to play in promoting prevention and wellness.
But I also want to tell you a little about what the Obama administration is
doing in these areas.
As some of you may have heard, we're currently in the middle of a major push
for health reform. President Obama and I are committed to delivering a health
care system that provides all Americans with better quality and lower costs. And
fighting obesity is at the heart of both of these goals.
That's why the President and the First Lady have made investing in prevention
and wellness one of their top priorities.
It's why we're going to require health insurance plans to cover preventative
services like the kind of counseling and care that can help people lose weight
or keep the weight off in the first place.
It's why as part of health reform, we'll also be investing in programs like
the ones highlighted in the CDC report.
These changes will keep people healthy and reduce chronic disease, which is
responsible for 70 percent of deaths in the US. And in the long run, they should
save a lot of money too since chronic disease accounts for 75% of our health
But President Obama and I don't think this issue can wait. And neither does
Congress, which is why they appropriated $1 billion for prevention as part of
the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.
Part of this money will go to immunizations and another part will go to
prevent patients from getting infections during surgeries and other medical
treatments. But most of the money is going towards a prevention initiative that
was developed by the CDC and the Office of Public Health and Science with input
from many of the groups that are here today.
We aren't ready to officially announce this initiative, but we expect that a
significant amount of the money will go to help states and communities attack
obesity and other public health challenges.
And if it's not already clear from my remarks today, I should add that I'm
convinced this is not just a challenge for the health community.
That's why we at HHS will be looking for any chance we can get to partner
with other agencies like the Departments of Education and Agriculture to help
Americans eat healthier and live healthier lives.
Americans are hearing a lot about health care these days. Some of it is
unpleasant like the partisan attacks that are starting to multiply. Some of it
is difficult and confusing like sorting out the details of different reform
What can get lost in this conversation is the huge, once-in a generation
opportunity we have to build a health care system that delivers better results
without bankrupting families or the federal government...a health care system
that incorporates best practices from across the country...that makes
forward-looking investments in prevention and health IT...that eliminates
unnecessary procedures and paperwork while expanding access to the best
treatments... a system that is designed with one goal: to give Americans the
best value and care possible.
Reducing obesity - especially for children - would be one of the biggest
steps we could take towards this better health future. And if everyone in this
room throws their weight behind helping Americans lower theirs, I think we make
By HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius