Thursday, January 05, 2012

The Real Problem with those Controversial Atlanta Childhood Obesity Ads

The ads cut straight to the point - childhood obesity is real and we can't continue to turn a blind eye towards it.

The ads have also been rather soundly criticized by experts who worry about their impact on the already rampant biases that are endured by children with obesity.

But the ads may well be necessary. Georgia has the second highest obesity rate in the country, and there's no doubt finding a means to reduce those rates, especially the childhood ones, would be a worthwhile endeavor.

So will these ads help?

I sure don't think so.

Instead they steer parents and children to a website full of rather useless one line recommendations. If it were as easy as doing things like, "When you are watching TV as a family, get up and move during the commercials—try running in place, dancing or jumping jacks", do you really think we'd have a problem?  The website also encourages parents to speak to their children's doctors about the problem.  But given that the vast majority of medical schools and residency programs teach pretty much nothing about nutrition and obesity, I'm not particularly hopeful their doctors' advice will be any more sage than the website's.

Without a doubt, the question of whether these ads stigmatize obesity further is an important discussion to have (and for the record, I think these ads simply highlight the issue, not stigmatize it), but I guess what I'm trying to say is this:  Lost in the discussion of stigma, the reporters and experts have seemingly forgotten one very important fact. That fact? We simply don't yet have a reproducible and reliable treatment program that results in significant and sustained weight loss in children.

So while I'm all for public health campaigns to address childhood obesity, it's not the individual victims that I think we should be focusing on, it's the world they're growing up in.

To help illustrate my point, try to imagine childhood obesity as a flooding river with no end in sight. While teaching children how to swim might help temporarily in keeping them afloat, given that the flood isn't abating, chances are, even with the best swimming instructions, the kids are going to get tired and sink. So while swimming lessons certainly can't hurt, what we really need to be shouting about doing is actually changing their environment and building them a levee.

The real problem with these ads is that they suggest that we're going to solve this problem on an individualized case by case basis.

Childhood obesity is the symptom. The environment is the cause.

If we want a cure, it's the cause we need rally against, and not the symptom.