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Child obesity study

Two new studies are calling for the disclosure of nutritional information on restaurant menus and a curb on food advertising aimed at children as partial but important ways to combat juvenile obesity. Both white papers also reject assertions that America's weight problem can be resolved merely by teaching or encouraging individuals to exercise more responsibility for their own health. Rather, the reports agreed, the scope of the issue necessitates a sweeping societal solution.

But the remedies they recommend differ greatly. The more recent of the two, issued this week by the thinktank Institute of Health, calls for largely voluntary actions on the part of industry, including the restaurant and advertising trades. For instance, it encourages fast-food and full-service establishments alike to continue offering more healthful choices, and to provide nutrition profiles of what they serve. But it does not call for those steps to be mandated by law.

Ironically, the study was drafted at the request of U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, who has championed legislation that would require the disclosure of dietary information on chain menus.

Similarly, the study recommends that the advertising industry voluntarily draft guidelines for marketing food to children. It also advised the trade to develop public-service campaigns to promote healthy eating, similar to the programs that discourage cigarette smoking and drug abuse.

The other white paper, put forth by a group advocating lawsuits and other legal actions to resolve America's weight problem, is far more strident. It was drafted by the Public Health Advocacy Institute, a group that has drawn fire from the restaurant industry for supporting obesity-based lawsuits against food providers. But listed co-authors include representatives from the law and medical schools of Northwestern, Harvard, and Tufts Universities, among other authorities.

The report asserts that the obesity crisis poses such a dire health threat that it must be countered with aggressive regulatory, legislative, and court actions. Toward that end, it called for the regulation of food ads targeted at children; mandatory nutritional disclosure by restaurants; and "consideration of obesity-related lawsuits against some food industry components."

The study also urged that state and federal laws be shifted away "from food-industry agendas" that "place all responsibility for obesity on 'consumer choice.' "

The PHAI said the paper would be published later this year in the Journal of Public Health Policy, and was distributed to attendees of a recent conference here, the group's second on legal remedies to the obesity crisis. The first, held earlier in 2004, was controversial because participants were required to sign an affidavit attesting they would not put what they learned to use for the food industry.

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