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Obesity close to leading preventable cause of death   

[MARCH 27, 2004]  With poor diet and physical inactivity poised to become the leading preventable cause of death in America, Secretary Tommy G. Thompson of the U.S. Department Health and Human Services has renewed efforts against obesity and overweight, announcing this month a new national education campaign and a new research strategy at the National Institutes of Health.

A study recently released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that deaths due to poor diet and physical inactivity rose by 33 percent over the past decade and may soon overtake tobacco as the leading preventable cause of death.

"Americans need to understand that overweight and obesity are literally killing us," Thompson said. "To know that poor eating habits and inactivity are on the verge of surpassing tobacco use as the leading cause of preventable death in America should motivate all Americans to take action to protect their health. We need to tackle America's weight issues as aggressively as we are addressing smoking and tobacco."

Thompson said the new advertising campaign from the HHS and Ad Council educates Americans that they can take small, achievable steps to improve their health and reverse the obesity epidemic. Consumers don't need to go to extremes, such as joining a gym or taking part in the latest diet plan, to make improvements in their health. But they do need to get active and eat healthier, he said.

"America needs to get healthier one small step at a time," Thompson said. "Each small step does make a difference, whether it's taking the stairs instead of an elevator or snacking on fruits and vegetables. The more small steps we can take, the further down the road we will be toward better health for ourselves and our families."

The release of the new education campaign and the new research agenda coincided with publication of the CDC study in the March 10 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association. The study, "Actual Causes of Death in the United States, 2000," finds that 400,000 deaths in the U.S. in 2000 (17 percent of all deaths) were related to poor diet and physical inactivity. Only tobacco use caused more deaths (435,000). And while most of the major preventable causes of death showed declines or little change since 1990, deaths due to poor diet and physical inactivity increased 33 percent. "Poor diet and physical inactivity may soon overtake tobacco as the leading cause of death," the study concludes..

Thompson called on individuals to maintain a healthy weight and help stem the rise in preventable death attributed to obesity and inactivity. He also called on corporations, communities and others to join in a national cooperative effort to increase awareness of the problem and help individuals access healthy foods and opportunities for healthy physical activity.

"The fact that more than a third of deaths in America each year are related to smoking, poor eating habits and physical inactivity is both tragic and unacceptable, because these are largely preventable behaviors," said CDC Director Julie Gerberding, M.D. "Investments in programs to increase physical activity, improve diet and increase smoking cessation are more important than ever before and must continue to be high priorities."

An estimated 129.6 million Americans, or 64 percent, are overweight or obese. Obesity and overweight have been shown to increase the risk for developing type 2 diabetes, heart disease, some forms of cancer and other disabling medical conditions. The total direct and indirect costs, including medical costs and lost productivity, were estimated at $117 billion nationally for 2000, according to the "2001 Surgeon General's Call to Action on Prevent and Decrease Overweight and Obesity."

Thompson unveiled an innovative public awareness and education campaign, entitled Healthy Lifestyles & Disease Prevention, which encourages American families to take small, manageable steps within their current lifestyle -- versus drastic changes -- to ensure effective, long-term weight control.

The Healthy Lifestyles & Disease Prevention initiative -- which includes multimedia public service advertisements and a new interactive Internet site, -- encourages Americans to make small activity and dietary changes, such as using stairs instead of an elevator, or taking a walk instead of watching television.


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The public service advertisements were developed for HHS in cooperation with the Ad Council. Designed for all media, they provide tongue-in-cheek examples of the power of small steps for long-term, sustained weight control and good health. The PSAs, created pro bono by New York agency McCann Erickson through the Ad Council, show typical Americans finding "love handles," double chins and other unwanted body parts in public places, apparently "lost," as their neighbors used the stairs instead of the escalator, got active at the beach or walked to the office. The advertisements will run and air in advertising time and space that is donated by the media. They are available at

"Our research has shown that many Americans believe that they need to make drastic changes in their lifestyles to get healthy," according to Peggy Conlon, president and CEO of the Ad Council. "This innovative, clever advertising shows how small steps can go a long way."

The companion Internet site, by communications firm Carton Donofrio Partners Inc., will provide information for Americans to incorporate the small steps into their routines.

"We know that gloom and doom messages warning against weight gain don't work," Thompson said. "These messages are provocative and attention-getting -- but they are also empowering and achievable."

Secretary Thompson also announced that the National Institutes of Health is developing a strategic plan for obesity research. The strategy will intensify research to better understand, prevent and treat obesity through:

  • Behavioral and environmental approaches to modifying lifestyle.
  • Pharmacologic, surgical and other medical approaches.
  • Breaking the link between obesity and diseases such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease and some forms of cancer.

The draft strategic plan, available at, is open for public comment until April 2. It was developed by a task force established by NIH Director Elias A. Zerhouni, M.D., last spring.

"The NIH Task Force on Obesity Research has developed a dynamic strategy that coordinates the stimulus for funding obesity research across 25 institutes, centers and offices at NIH," Dr. Zerhouni said. "There is no single cause of all human obesity, so we must explore prevention and treatment approaches that encompass many aspects, such as behavioral, sociocultural, socioeconomic, environmental, physiologic and genetic factors. NIH can greatly expand scientific knowledge of this complex and multifaceted disorder."

Current year NIH funding for obesity research is $400.1 million, up from $378.6 million in fiscal 2003. The budget request for fiscal 2005 is $440.3 million, a 10 percent increase from the current year.

The Department of Health and Human Services has long spearheaded initiatives to motivate Americans of all ages to become more active and learn more about healthy living. The Healthy Lifestyles & Disease Prevention campaign will now coalesce health organizations, media, athletic organizations and others to join in promoting healthier lifestyles. Already partnering in the public education campaign are such varied organizations as Lifetime Television, Sesame Workshop, and the United Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Association. Additional partners will be added as the campaign continues.

[U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
news release]

Editor's note: Statistics from the CDC study on actual causes of death are available at

Details of the CDC's efforts to reduce the impact of these actual causes of death are available at

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