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July 30, 2009

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Health care reforms to take aim at US obesity

THE US government plans to increase funding to battle obesity and views health care reforms as an opportunity to encourage better eating habits, according to Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius.

The Obama administration, as part of its economic stimulus package, will give states and local governments more money to control obesity, including investing in public transportation, Sebelius told an obesity conference in Washington on Tuesday.

She added that legislation in Congress to overhaul the US$2.5 trillion health care industry could boost programs to get more fruits and vegetables into school lunches and encourage grocery stores to sell more fresh produce in poor communities.

"We finally have a plan," Sebelius told the conference, which was sponsored by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

She said most of US$1 billion appropriated by Congress for disease prevention as part of the stimulus plan would go to a CDC-planned initiative to fight obesity, heart disease and other chronic conditions.

"A significant amount of the money will go to help states and communities attack obesity and other public health challenges," she said.

A report released on Monday found that obesity costs the US health system US$147 billion a year.

"The American Cancer Society estimates that all cancers combined cost our health care system US$93 billion a year. So, ending obesity would save our health care system 50 percent more dollars than curing cancer," Sebelius said.

She praised a 2006 initiative headed by former US President Bill Clinton and the American Heart Association that persuaded soft-drink makers to limit some of the sugary drinks sold in school vending machines.

CDC Director Dr Thomas Frieden, who has supported a soft drink tax, said it may be difficult to get political support for such a move.

Sebelius said the federal government could do more to encourage healthy habits, including serving better meals in schools, senior centers and government buildings and encouraging grocery stores to open in neglected, poor and rural neighborhoods. She also called for more physical education classes for children.


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