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Leavitt endorses bipartisan obesity report, won’t discuss Romney views on subject

Michael Leavitt

Michael Leavitt

Former Utah Gov. and Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt last week joined a bipartisan group of former Cabinet officers to endorse a report on obesity and how to address the problem, but declined to discuss how a Mitt Romney administration might address those issues.

Leavitt, who headed the Environmental Protection Agency and HHS in the George W. Bush administration and heads a healthcare and food safety consulting firm, is expected to head the transition team if Romney is elected president. Some conservatives have criticized the anti-obesity campaign of First Lady Michelle Obama and the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act provisions to make school meals healthier as intrusions of the nanny state.

Leavitt, who has been co-chairing a Bipartisan Policy Center committee on obesity with former Agriculture secretaries Dan Glickman and Ann Veneman and former HHS Secretary Donna Shalala, joined the other former Cabinet secretaries in releasing the report at a BPC event last Tuesday.

Both the public and private sectors “should encourage prevention” of obesity because there is a question of “how we pay for health care,” Leavitt said. He also noted that he grew up in the era of “Leave it to Beaver” and “Bonanza” when children regularly played outside after school. Noting that children don’t play unsupervised outside today, he added, “We’ve become heavier and sicker.”

But when a reporter asked Leavitt how a Romney administration would address the issue, a center moderator said that the four secretaries had agreed to focus on the content of the report.

During the discussion, Leavitt did say, “We’re not going to regulate and tax our way out of this problem. It’s about changing hearts, the way we eat and exercise.”

Leavitt added, however, “We are beginning to allow people to hear the consequences of their behavior” when large health plans charge higher premiums for people who have a higher body mass index. “That’s not regulation or taxation,” he said.

Shalala, a Democrat who served in the Clinton administration, also said, “We can't do this by overregulation. We have to change people’s thinking and behavior.”

The report, entitled “Lots to Lose: How America’s Health and Obesity Crisis Threatens our Economic Future,” says that “obesity is the most urgent public health problem in America today.”

Dan Glickman

Dan Glickman
Glickman said that there are “no silver bullets” to solve problem. Instead, he said, it needs “silver buckshot,” a variety of efforts ranging from encouraging people to get more exercise to reducing portion sizes, from hospital policy to farm policy.

Glickman also said there are many efforts under way to address obesity but no central clearinghouse of those efforts so that one community or business can learn from another.

“If you think that this is fluffy stuff about diet and exercise or creating a nanny state, you’re wrong,” Glickman said. “This should not be a partisan issue.”

Donna Shalala

Donna Shalala
Shalala noted that it has been the students at universities that have insisted on improvements in the healthiness of the food and that the universities have accomplished that improvement without much of an increase in cost.

She also noted that when she headed the University of Wisconsin, a coach got his athletes to eat better by having the healthier foods at the head of the cafeteria line so that their plates were full by the time they got to the less healthy foods.

None of the Cabinet officers showed much enthusiasm for taxes on certain foods.

Shalala acknowledged that “price sensitivity” had worked on smoking, but added that the tobacco tax was more effective in discouraging children from taking up smoking than in changing adult behavior.

She also noted that when she was asked on Capitol Hill about “Twinkie taxes” during the Clinton administration, she said the president would never go for it because of his own eating habits, but that since having heart surgery he has become a vegan. Glickman said that the data shows that increasing taxes on certain foods won’t have much of an impact on consumers unless the taxes are very high.

Veneman, who served as head of UNICEF, the U.N. agency, after serving as Agriculture secretary in the George W. Bush administration, noted that obesity is an international problem affecting more and more children worldwide.