Obamacare also tackles childhood obesity

by Erica Cohen

While public attention has focused mostly on the individual insurance mandate, other seemingly unrelated parts of the health reform law, the Affordable Care Act (ACA), are also extremely important. Several of them focus on preventing illness and disease, with provisions specifically targeting childhood obesity.

Prevention is a key part of improving the overall health system. As important as it is that all Americans have access to health insurance, the best overall result would be if we didn’t need as much of it.

About 17% of children between the ages of 2 and 19 are obese. The rate of childhood obesity has tripled since 1980. Obese individuals are more likely to develop a variety of expensive, resource-draining health issues such as diabetes, sleep apnea, orthopedic injuries, and psychosocial problems. For their sake and for the sake of the health care system, it is essential to stop the cycle. 

While the environment in which a child lives significantly affects his or her propensity for obesity, there are practical steps the government can take to help.

The ACA earmarked up to $5.25 million for the Childhood Obesity Demonstration Project, which funds three research organizations to study and identify effective childhood obesity prevention strategies. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) will release the findings and make recommendations for childhood obesity prevention when the project ends in September 2015.

The ACA also provides $100 million in funding for up to 75 Community Transformation Grants to assist communities in implementing programs to reduce chronic diseases and promote healthy lifestyles. The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) will use some of these grants to target adolescent and child health. Qualifying projects include “eliminating food deserts and increasing access to healthy food options, including efforts to improve school nutrition or bring healthier food to corner markets in urban areas.”

The ACA also requires restaurants with 20 or more locations to list calorie content on menus and menu boards, including drive-throughs. Vending machine operators with 20 or more machines must also disclose calorie content for certain items.

While these efforts are laudable, more is needed. One reason many individuals purchase fast food is because it is cheap and easy to access. A good next step would be to impose a tax on foods and drinks with a high sugar content. Rather than banning sugary soft drinks, a tax would make them less desirable, particularly for low-income individuals who are at greater risk for obesity.

In Philadelphia, to avoid a beverage tax, the American Beverage Association agreed to donate $10 million to the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia to fund childhood obesity research. While this donation is beneficial, it will not decrease the consumption of sugary drinks.

Additionally, food options in school cafeterias should change. Many students eat lunches that consist of pizza, hot dogs, and french fries, and their families cannot afford to supplement them with real dinners. Instead of receiving a nutritious, healthy diet, these students are consuming fat-laden, unhealthy foods. While Michele Obama’s Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 was a good start, some children claimed it left them hungry, even though the lunches it provided contained 850 calories. If served the right items, a lunch of that size should be sufficient.

Some may argue that these regulations infringe upon individual rights and autonomy. However, when the United States spends $150 million a year treating obesity-related illnesses, something must be done. And given the rising rate of childhood obesity, the problem is likely to get worse unless we take far-reaching measures.

The media has focused on debates over the ACA’s provisions on health insurance, but the law also seeks to improve our overall health. In the long run, that may have the greatest impact of all.