Keith Nunes 2019KANSAS CITY — Neither ingredient suppliers nor food and beverage manufacturers are responsible for the obesity epidemic in America, but many will be held accountable. Accountability will come in the form of taxes on products featuring ingredients deemed unhealthful or outright bans on the sale of specific products in certain venues. The latest data about obesity in America indicate calls for such actions may grow in intensity.

The rate of obesity among U.S. adults has reached an historic level, according to the State of Obesity: Better Policies for a Healthier America, a report issued in September by the Trust for America’s Health (T.F.A.H.) and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Nine U.S. states had adult obesity rates above 35% in 2018, up from seven states in 2017. Obesity rates were at or above 30% in 31 states, and at or above 25% in 48 states.

By comparison, the rate of adult obesity in 2012 exceeded 30% in 13 states, while 41 states had rates of at least 25%. Every state was above 20% in 2012. As recently as 1991, no state had an obesity rate of more than 20%, and in 2000 no state was above 25%.

“These latest data shout that our national obesity crisis is getting worse,” said John Auerbach, president and chief executive officer of T.F.A.H. “They tell us that almost 50 years into the upward curve of obesity rates we haven’t yet found the right mix of programs to stop the epidemic. Isolated programs and calls for lifestyle changes aren’t enough. Instead, our report highlights the fundamental changes that are needed in the social and economic conditions that make it challenging for people to eat healthy foods and get sufficient exercise.”

The T.F.A.H. recommends increasing the price of sugary drinks through excise taxes and use the revenue to address health and socioeconomic disparities. Taxing beverages featuring certain levels of caloric sweeteners is not new. What is new is research suggesting such actions may be effective. A study published in the British Medical Journal that reviewed the potential impact on the prevalence of obesity in the United Kingdom of a 20% price increase in such high-sugar snacks as biscuits, confectionery items and cakes. The higher price could reduce the prevalence of obesity in the U.K. by 2.7% after one year, according to the study.

Obesity is a complex issue, and taxing foodstuffs associated with the condition to help pay for public health programs aimed at reducing the incidence of obesity may be an option. Another is to better educate and engage the medical community.

Despite diet being the most significant risk factor for disability and premature death in the United States, the average medical student spends less than 1% of lecture hours on nutrition, according to research conducted by the Harvard Law School Food Law and Policy Clinic. Only 14% of physicians feel adequately trained to counsel patients on nutrition, the group said.

Health care professionals consistently are ranked as a trusted source of information related to health and wellness. As government officials and public health professionals seek additional options to address the nation’s obesity crisis, they should better prepare physicians and leverage the role doctors play in their patient’s health and wellness decisions.