Well over 100 students, school administrators, public health officials, social service workers, and other citizens attended the New Brighton Middle School March 24 lecture “How to Solve the Obesity Epidemic in Santa Cruz County,” by Robert Lustig, a Pediatrician and Endocrinologist at UC San Francisco’s Center for Obesity Assessment, Study, and Treatment. The session was introduced by Superintendent Michael Watkins, and Lustig’s lecture on the environmental roots of obesity was book-ended with policy discussions by Congressman Sam Farr and Assemblymember Bill Monning.
Congressman Farr noted that health care accounts for 27% of the federal budget, which is by far the highest percentage of any budgetary category, including defense. He posited that we will be unable to afford health care for everyone as a nation unless we reduce this cost, which must largely occur through changed nutritional behaviors, leading to decreases in chronic disease.
In an engaging and sometimes passionate lecture, Dr. Lustig touched on research suggesting that diet and exercise and an emphasis on personal behavior are not enough to cut obesity rates, which have doubled over the last 3 decades. He contends that a ‘toxic environment’ in which a larger percentage of our total caloric intake comes from sucrose and fructose is greater than at any time in human history, which in large parts comes from sweetened beverages and is responsible for our obesity. He showed evidence likening sugar over-consumption to alcohol addiction, with many of the same consequences. Dr. Lustig stated that a continuing emphasis on individual responsibility for dietary behaviors, while still important, will not overcome the enormous growth in diabetes and heart disease that are related to obesity. He urged the politicians and voters in the room to consider market-based solutions such as significant taxes on sweetened beverages and point-of-sale controls, as well as limits on advertising sweetened and fast foods to children and regulatory actions that would include the removal of sucrose/fructose from the “Generally Regarded As Safe (GRAS)” category of ingredients that is overseen by the FDA. He argued that consumers have the power to override industry interests in preserving the status quo through political and economic pressure.
The lecture was concluded with an update on a proposed soda tax by Assemblymember Monning. While acknowledging Lustig’s concern that his proposed tax of a penny per ounce of sweetened beverages is not enough to affect obesity rates, he noted the incremental nature of legislative change and stated his commitment to continue working towards improved public health through policy action.
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