Think Tank Asks, What Works?

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Housed at the School of Public Health and Health Services at George Washington University, a group is looking for innovative and practical ways to end the obesity epidemic. Its purpose statement says,

The Strategies to Overcome and Prevent (STOP) Obesity Alliance is a collaboration of consumer, provider, government, labor, business, health insurers and quality-of-care organizations… The STOP Obesity Alliance will foster change in society’s perceptions of, and approaches to, preventing and treating obesity in the context of the real-world environment in which we live.

This sounds interesting, but in what way does the Alliance hope to change society’s perceptions of the prevention and treatment of obesity? Does it want society to become what is called fat-positive, accepting overweight as the new norm? Or does it want us to realize that better nutrition and more exercise are not the whole solution?

The purpose of a think tank is to tell the government which laws it should pass, and suggest what businesses and other organizations ought to require of their employees and members. The Alliance’s public relations material states that it is made up of representatives from the government, labor organizations, corporations, the health care industry, the insurance industry, quality-of-care organizations, and of course the consumer sector.

So basically, they’re all figuring out what rules to make for themselves and each other in order to have the desired impact on the end-users, the public. The Alliance’s policy recommendations fall under five main headings. There is a lot of emphasis on exercise for its own sake, and “fitness as a marker for health”:

Specifically, the coalition calls for encouraging interventions and creating environments that support physical activity, in order to improve health, independent of weight or weight loss… Physical activity has significant and widespread benefits, regardless of one’s weight…The Alliance encourages interventions and creating environments and systems that support active living…

Yes, but what do they mean by that? What interventions? For instance, people could presumably be forced to walk more if cities closed down the remaining municipal bus systems. But such a move would be really bad in other ways, so let’s hope the thinkers are alert to the possibility of unintended consequences.

Exercise can very rarely do harm, and, besides burning calories, it does a lot of good for a person that can indirectly help tame obesity. It’s funny how people can understand a concept in one area of life, yet ignore it in others. The owner of an excellent car will tell you how it needs to be taken out on the highway periodically and driven at top speed to blow out the engine. But the same person is perfectly capable of deliberate blindness to the body’s need for motion and exertion.

Is it unusual for an American university, named for our first president, to be the home of a think tank financed by one of Europe’s largest pharmaceutical mega-corporations? We are told by SourceWatch that Sanofi-Aventis is based in Paris, and also that its American branch has spent more than $8 million on lobbying in 2009. That is, frankly, the least worrisome piece of information on the SourceWatch page, which does not leave a favorable overall impression.

Okay, Sanofi-Aventis is not the only company whose World War II activities do not bear close scrutiny. But here we find activities in the very recent past, such as 2009, when it was fined $95 million for scamming Medicaid. The STOP Obesity Alliance was founded in 2007, and someone with a curious mind might think it was set up in anticipation of somehow alleviating the worst possible outcome of this lawsuit which, like all such actions, took many years to wend its way through the courts.

The chair of the Alliance’s steering committee is Dr. Richard H. Carmona, who served as Surgeon General of the United States from 2002-2006. Dr. Carmona says:

The time is right because we have and understand the best science about obesity the world has ever known. The science has been evaluated and communicated. We are asking policy makers and other decision makers to use the science to make informed decisions that will help reduce the burden of obesity on our nation.

The science is there, but so is the other science that contradicts whatever the “other” science says. That’s the trouble. A lot of science is there, including various research projects and studies seem to say different things. And even the most rigorous science is always open to interpretation and can send a lot of people down the wrong path. If there is any doubt about that, consider the long-term evaluation of the Seven Countries Study.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “About the Alliance,” StopObesityAlliance.org
Source: “STOP Obesity Alliance Determines Physical Activity May Be as Important as Weight Loss for Achieving Better Health,” sphhs.gwumc.edu, 06/16/11
Source: “Sanofi-Aventis,” SourceWatch.org
Image by zhouxuan12345678, used under its Creative Commons license.

2 Responses

  1. I warn you this may become a rant. I am a 58 year old man. I was the middle child of a lower middle class home of the 60’s. This was before the time of computers, and back when we had just 5 channels on TV and, as Jeff Foxworthy said ” If the president was on your evening was shot.” My older brother was thin, my sister and I were not. I spent as much time in front of the TV and on my bike as my thin friends. I was notibly slower than them. I was the fattest kid in my class. now when I look at my pediatric patients (I am a family nurse practitioner) I would have been about in the middle. The reality is that we don’t have the answers. if it was just about “eat less and exercise more”…there wouldn’t be websites like this and nearly every university in the world wouldn’t be studying obesity…and they are. I see families with perhaps just 1 of the children who is overweight or obese. the others are not. there are no absolutes. we do have tools to help children and adults who are obese and it isn’t easy. these aren’t necessarily lazy people who eat too much. Many are very active and eat no more than there thinner counterparts.

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