Secretary Leavitt Urged to Jump Start HHS’s Moribund Anti-Obesity Efforts

Action Urged Before US-EU Summit Meeting in May


The top health official in the United States is doing woefully little to stem the obesity epidemic or help Americans avoid diet-related diseases, according to the nonprofit nutrition advocacy group, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI). The group says that Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Mike Leavitt should develop and announce major education and regulatory measures in advance of an upcoming U.S.-European Union meeting on diet, physical activity, and health.

Former Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson gained favorable headlines for the concern his office expressed for obesity and physical activity. While Thompson’s program amounted to little (the program was literally called “Small Steps”), CSPI says that even those small symbolic efforts exceed the attention that Secretary Leavitt has given to diet and health. Obesity only warrants glancing mentions in a document on the HHS web site outlining Leavitt’s priorities for the next 500 days.

“Secretary Leavitt’s apparent lack of concern about preventing obesity and diet-related diseases sends a strong signal to the food industry that it need not worry about government scrutiny of its practices, even where children are concerned,” said CSPI executive director Michael F. Jacobson. “Not only is the department failing to help prevent the several hundred thousand premature deaths due to obesity, heart failure, diabetes, and other diet-related problems, it doesn’t even seem to care that the government and consumers are unnecessarily shelling out billions of dollars annually to treat those conditions.”

In 2004, the federal government reluctantly decided to support the approval of the World Health Organization’s 2004 Global Strategy on Diet, Physical Activity, and Health—a document that called on food companies to reform their practices regarding marketing to children and improve the nutritional composition of their foods. CSPI says that if the HHS wanted to advance the objectives of that strategy it would require food processors to lower sodium levels, ban the use of partially hydrogenated oils, reform Nutrition Facts labeling to have more useful information about serving sizes and added sugars, and work with the FTC to protect kids from the marketing of unhealthy foods. The Administration would also support legislation in Congress that would give USDA broader authority to set standards for foods sold in schools outside the school meal program, and to require nutrition information on fast-food menu boards and chain-restaurant menus, says CSPI.

“Several European countries are outpacing the United States in implementing sensible prevention-oriented policies,” said Bruce Silverglade, legal affairs director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) and president of the International Association of Consumer Food Organizations, which includes groups in Europe. “The United Kingdom is successfully pressuring food companies to reduce salt, Denmark has virtually eliminated partially hydrogenated oils, and France has cracked down on vending machines in schools. Regrettably the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services isn’t interested in securing those and other public health advances for American consumers.”

The U.S. government, represented by HHS Deputy Secretary Alex Azar, will be meeting with the European Commissioner for Health and Consumer Protection in Brussels on May 11-12 to discuss public policy approaches to combating obesity and improving diet and health. The meeting, organized by the European Union, will also be attended by food industry officials, consumer groups, and academics from both sides of the Atlantic.

The meeting is the culmination of a one-year effort by the European Union to identify limits on food marketing, improvements in ingredient composition, and consumer education initiatives that have successfully been used to address dietary health problems.

“We hope that HHS and the American food industry take note of some of the progress that is being made in Europe and implement such measures—and others—here at home,” said Silverglade.

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