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Anti-tobacco campaign has lessons for taking on child obesity

By Rick Montgomery and Mará Rose Williams

McClatchy Newspapers

At some point in recent history, America’s youth got the message that Marlboros were hazardous, but Doritos were hip.

For all of society’s hand-wringing over childhood obesity, the latest studies show the epidemic only getting worse. Since 1980, when potato chips and TV and poverty were just as plentiful, obesity rates among youngsters haven’t just swelled. They’ve tripled.

But smoking has decreased _ to the degree that 80 percent of 10th-graders would rather not even date a smoker, up from 68 percent who told that to University of Michigan pollsters in 1997.

So experts wonder: Could the bold strategies of the anti-tobacco campaign be duplicated in a full-bore, in-your-face mission to get more kids on board with healthy eating and exercise?

One TV ad produced by the New York City health department takes off the gloves when it comes to guzzling sugary sodas. A handsome young man pops open a can and pours into a glass some goopy, yellow, chunk-filled sludge, representing fat.

An actor downs the drink, which drips down his chin. The screen reads: “Drinking 1 can of soda a day can make you 10 pounds fatter a year.”

The ad has more than 500,000 hits on YouTube.

“I don’t think we have a choice but to take on obesity,” said Lloyd Johnston of the Institute for Social Research at Michigan.

But Johnston would advocate a more subtle educational strategy without shaming young people into eating better or getting off the couch.

“There has been a major shift — a sea change, I’d say — in attitudes about smoking among kids ... but you’re looking at very different problems,” he said.

“Unlike cigarettes, people need food to consume, and all of us like tasty food. You can’t just say, ‘Don’t do it.’ So the question becomes, what kinds of food should we be letting our kids eat?”

First lady Michelle Obama launched the Let’s Move campaign, with a sky-high goal _ “solve the problem of childhood obesity in a generation.”

To do that, many said, would require not just tweaking the attitudes of young Americans but educating their parents, taxing soda and fatty foods to price the youngest buyers out of the market, posting warning labels, regulating advertising, and holding companies accountable for the damage their products can do.

All of those tactics were used in the decades-long campaign to change smoking habits.

“I think we follow that same path,” said Amy Porter, a pediatrician for Kaiser Permanente. “You don’t want to disparage young people for being overweight. ... But we do need to change habits and practices,” requiring an arsenal of new approaches and ideas.

An extra-large fit

Advocacy groups took years to convince Hollywood to cut back on smoking in movies and TV, and even today, depictions of cigarette use, such as in the 1950s-60s era drama “Mad Men,” drive some crazy.

At one time the screens were ruled by thin, fit talent — with the exception of comedy’s king, Jackie Gleason, and a small minority of character actors.

Now the rotund have found a more comfortable extra-large fit. And those “doctors” and rugged “cowboys” who once pitched cigarettes on TV? They’ve been replaced by athletes advertising McDonald’s and Oreos.

In a culture getting beyond making fun of fat folk (partly because there are so many of us), experts acknowledge the trickiness of attacking diet habits that press against other troubles of children and youth — self-esteem, social acceptance, class, eating disorders.

A new study by Kaiser Permanente finds childhood obesity most prevalent in African-American girls and Latino boys; do we dare address why? Family role models and the low costs of processed foods come into play.

Hollywood capitalizes on America’s growing girth with TV programs once unthinkable, with titles such as “More to Love,” “Bulging Brides” and “Kirstie Alley’s Big Life.”

The entertainment media also make obesity the villain in a reality show on racing to slim down: “The Biggest Loser.”

But the British reality show “Honey, We’re Killing the Kids” is more serious. It uses computer-generated digital images to show parents what their children may look like as adults if they continue with their poor dietary and exercise habits.

A new multimedia advertising campaign called “Did You Play Today?” and launched by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services takes a gentler approach. It uses characters from Maurice Sendak’s classic children’s story, “Where the Wild Things Are,” to try to lead children to healthy lifestyles.

“Kids don’t buy the groceries and they don’t cook the meals,” said Nnedima Anya, a tall, lean freshman at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, sitting with friends last week in the campus cafeteria. “They eat what they are used to, and they are used to what their parents serve them.”

Any campaign to change kids’ ways has to focus as much on their parents, they said.

Some argue not even popular entertainment and hard-hitting ads can change an entire culture of indulgence.

“I’m not sure you can fix this,” said Michael F. Jacobson of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a food-label watchdog. “So much of modern society has caused this obesity _ the automobile culture, the video-game culture, sitting at computers ...

“This epidemic could even be linked to something very insidious that we’re not thinking about,” he said, such as chemical pollutants, the lining in cans, or fetal conditions for babies born to overweight mothers.