Obesity: A communicable disease?

Chronic diseases, including heart disease, diabetes, and cancer, account for 75 percent of the nation’s $2 trillion in medical costs. Yet, the National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion (NCCDPHP) receives only 7 percent ($765 million) of total funding for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) ($10.4 billion). The Division of Nutrition, Physical Activity, and Obesity, which resides under the Chronic Disease Center, receives a mere 0.4 percent ($44 million) of total CDC funding, though obesity is responsible for about 10 percent of health care costs.

Far more Americans are personally affected by obesity than by communicable diseases. About 12,000 Americans died from H1N1 (swine flu) from April 2009 to April 2010, but the Surgeon General estimates that 300,000 deaths are attributable to poor nutrition, physical inactivity and obesity each year. During the 2003 SARS (a viral respiratory disease) outbreak, only eight Americans had confirmed cases. Yet, 36 percent of American adults are obese, about 86 million people. We’re not advocating cuts in funding to prevent and treat communicable diseases, but rather to meaningfully increase funding to reduce obesity to bring it more in line with its impact on the nation's health and to help reduce its burden on health care costs.

ADVERTISEMENT
Communicable diseases are scary – they are unknown, invisible, and quick-hitting. We picture them lurking in every subway platform, airport, and crowded meeting. We feel like we have little or no control in protecting ourselves and our loved ones, so we want government to step in and protect us. Unhealthy nutrition is not scary, but it is just as, or even more, deadly. If you don’t smoke, poor nutrition and physical inactivity are the things most likely to kill you.

As we send our children off to school and other activities, we don’t want to worry that they will contract some deadly disease. Yet, our kids are contracting obesity. A third of American children have contracted obesity from the unhealthy foods sold through vending machines and a la carte lines in schools; food and entertainment companies marketing high-sugar, high-calorie foods at every opportunity; unhealthy children’s meals at restaurants; and unhealthy foods tempting us at highway rest stops, park concession stands, checkout lines in drug stores, bus stations, shopping malls, gas stations, everywhere.

Obesity might not be a communicable disease in the technical sense, but it has been spreading in this country since the 1970s. We are transmitting it by not giving Americans the tools and support they need through policies, education, and changes to the food environment. One key agency that could help is the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, just as it helps protect the nation from infectious diseases.

Congress and the Obama Administration should boost funding for the CDC’s Division of Nutrition, Physical Activity, and Obesity to a level commensurate with the enormous problem of obesity- and diet-related disease. Currently, CDC is only able to fund 25 states with modest grants to prevent obesity, and even that funding is being cut through sequestration. Notwithstanding calls for across-the-board budget cuts, it is urgent that CDC have the funding to help reverse the obesity epidemic in all 50 states.

Personal responsibility and individual behavior are parts of the solution, but with two-thirds of American adults and one-third of children overweight or obese, clearly this is a major societal problem. You can bet that if 86 million Americans contracted some rare flu and 300,000 of them died from it each year, the country would be fully mobilized to prevent that disease.

Bishop, M.S, M.P.H and Wootan, D.Sc. work on nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a national nutrition advocacy organization, which led efforts to place nutrition facts labels on packaged foods, get soda and junk food out of schools, require calorie labeling on menus in chain restaurants, and reduce unhealthy food marketing to children.

More in Healthcare

Ebola vaccine trials to begin in weeks

Read more »