Mississippi hasn’t ignored obesity issue

Published 2:56 pm Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Mississippi usually tops most rankings for the unhealthiest or fattest states, but lawmakers can’t be accused of ignoring the problem.

Over the years, they’ve passed numerous bills to address obesity, ranging from healthy school lunches to government-funded gastric bypass surgery for state employees.

The latest effort is a proposal to create a council dedicated to studying ways to combat obesity. House Public Health Committee Chairman Steve Holland, a Democrat from Plantersville, who filed the bill, said the group will be expected to “lay a blueprint” for the next decade. The measure has passed the House and Senate and is headed to the governor’s desk.

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Under the bill, a proposed 34-member council would include appointees of the governor, as well as representatives of the Mississippi State Medical Association, the YMCA, the Beverage Association of Mississippi and Mississippi Chapter of the American Society of Metabolic and Bariatric Surgery.

The group would be charged with developing a plan addressing issues that include implementing a statewide policy on physical activity, providing nutrition counseling and curriculum and after-school fitness programs. They’re also supposed to collect and analyze data to demonstrate the economic impact of treating obesity and the estimated cost savings of implementing a statewide obesity prevention and management model.

Senate Public Health Committee Chairman Hob Bryan, D-Amory, said lawmakers’ attempts at public policies to attack obesity have been noble efforts. However, he said the key is educating residents about lifestyle changes. Bryan said there are some who feel “it’s an improper role of the government” to tell people how they should live and what they should eat.

Last June, an annual report from Trust for America’s Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation listed Mississippi as the country’s fattest state for the sixth year in the row.

The state also had the highest rates of physical inactivity and hypertension. Mississippi had the second highest rate of diabetes.

For years, lawmakers and Republican Gov. Haley Barbour have supported projects and programs to help the state shed its unhealthy distinction. Some unsuccessful proposals included taxing sugary sodas and establishing an obesity clinic in the chronically poor Delta region.

In 2009, Barbour signed a bill into law to pay for state employees to undergo gastric bypass surgery to treat obesity. The governor and his wife, Marsha, also promoted a walking program and were featured in advertisements with former New Orleans Saints football player Deuce McAllister.

First Lady Michelle Obama visited Mississippi in 2010 to brag about some innovative approaches that had been taken in communities across the state. She also noted the state Department of Education had started several programs to increase physical activity at schools, boost the consumption of fruit and vegetables in lunchrooms and reduce fried foods on school menus.

Lawmakers should get some credit for practicing what they preach. For the second consecutive year, many of them have participated in a grueling 12-week workout program. The Fit for Change challenge, led by trainer Paul Lacoste, ended this past week. About 200 participants — including state employees and private citizens — lost more than 3,043 pounds.

Holland’s been the main cheerleader for the fitness challenge. Holland has lost 140 pounds since he underwent bariatric surgery a few years ago, and he’s spent many sweaty mornings working out in Fit for Change. He joined other participants in a 5K run to mark the program’s end last Wednesday.

“We’re making progress. I would say to those naysayers, yes, progress has been slow, but with remarkable results,” Holland said. “We’re not nearly where we need to be.”