Type 2 diabetes was once known as the "adult onset" type, because it came on only in adulthood.
But youth no longer confers immunity. Thanks to rampant childhood obesity, Type 2 is increasingly being diagnosed among American kids. Although the numbers are still small, the growth of this disease among the young is another troubling sign of how serious America's weight problem has become.
By federal standards, a third of American children and two-thirds of adults weigh more than they should. A debate is raging over how much loss of life this causes, but there is little question that being severely obese poses serious health problems and can shorten life.
The health consequences of the obesity epidemic among kids demand immediate action. Children's food choices are heavily dependent on adults, and childhood obesity predicts a lifetime of struggles with weight and disease. It's time for an all-out national campaign to change this disturbing picture.
We've done it before. America is a world leader in the fight against smoking; a study recently in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute found that aggressive U.S. anti-tobacco policies from 1975 to 2000 prevented more than 795,000 premature deaths from lung cancer. Many more lives were probably saved if you take account of those not lost to heart disease, emphysema and other ills associated with tobacco.
No sensible parent would dream of letting children smoke, and none should let children become seriously overweight. Obese kids suffer more health problems and tend to become obese adults. A study that tracked Pima and Tohono O'odham American Indians over several decades found that childhood obesity was associated with a dramatically higher risk of death by age 55.
The first step in attacking this problem is raising parental awareness. Children's Healthcare of Atlanta, a pediatric hospital, recently launched a tough ad campaign to shock parents into acknowledging the problem, which is especially severe in Georgia. Billboards and print ads show badly overweight children; one ad says, "Warning; it's hard to be a little girl if you're not. Stop childhood obesity." A video in the campaign shows a boy and his mother, both fat. "Mom," the boy asks pointedly. "Why am I fat?" A caption then says that 75 percent of Georgia parents with fat kids don't recognize the problem. http://strong4life.com/stopthecycle/
It's too early to tell what these ads are accomplishing, and some critics say they could backfire by further stigmatizing obese kids. But a harsh New York City anti-smoking campaign appears to have had some success. Print and TV ads featuring Ronaldo Martinez, who lost his larynx to throat cancer, were part of an aggressive drive that included higher cigarette taxes and a smoking ban in bars and restaurants. Together, the measures are credited with reducing smoking in New York 5 percent a year from 2002 to 2006, versus 3 percent nationally.
Similar results might be possible in combatting childhood obesity, which has leveled off in recent years, although at far too high a rate. In New York City, obesity among K-8 students actually fell from 21.9 percent to 20.7 percent over the five school years ended in 2010-11. Starting in 2003, the city initiated a host of measures aimed at child obesity, including training school nurses and serving lower calorie food in school cafeterias. They seem to be helping.
Such a comprehensive approach is just what's needed. The Georgia ads -- which are much harsher than the cheerful Let's Move! campaign launched by the Obama administration -- are aimed at motivating parents, but they're also part of a five-year, $25 million drive that includes training for pediatricians and launching school programs.
It's time to ramp up such an effort nationally -- a well funded, high profile assault to roll back the harm we're doing to our children. Sugar-coating this problem won't make it go away.