The current swine flu epidemic, with all of its gravitas, actually almost makes light of another "epidemic" that has afflicted millions in the United States for years and which shows no sign of subsiding; namely, childhood obesity. On the one hand, we have a legitimate viral outbreak that raises the specter of a global pandemic. And on the other, we have a decades-long, incremental -- but certainly preventable -- trend fueled by a number of controllable factors. While both are furnished with the "epidemic" label, someone shouldn't be faulted for smirking at the child obesity "epidemic" as bearing a rather frivolous appellation when it's compared to the current global situation.
However, beyond the initial smirk, the perception that child obesity is an "epidemic" in the same fashion that a legitimate deadly outbreak is does have its serious consequences. According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC) child obesity rates have tripled since 1980, mostly irrespective of race, age, gender, geography, education or socioeconomic standing. By definition, and given the increased prevalence of each, the CDC is correct with its "epidemic" label for both the current swine flu outbreak as well as childhood obesity. But what are the consequences of that label? Does it not create a confused perception among many who will equate the "epidemic" nature of the two?
If this is the case, then it allows those responsible for their own child's obesity to believe that the problem is out of their hands -- as if it were the product of some plague or natural disaster rather than just years of benign parental neglect. And many will do just that anyways, by making a scapegoat of public schools or something uncontrollable such as genetic predispositions, even though for the latter, the meteoric rise in prevalence must mean that something external and environmental is factoring into the equation.
The New York Times editorialized on the public policy side of the child obesity issue this week. The usual points were made regarding school lunches and too-easily accessed junk food from snack machines; and proposals were made to cheaply switch out the crap for healthy alternatives. Few, if any, would disagree with the Times' assessment of child obesity's root causes and their proffered solution. The problem is that, though public policy reforms are necessary, they are not sufficient. What must drive these policies is a broad but subtle societal shift in attitude towards child obesity, and towards those who may be responsible at school as well as in the home.
The line between quotidian social politesse and more imperative societal responsibility is not always clear. As H.L. Mencken once said, "We must respect the other fellow's religion, but only in the sense and to the extent that we respect his theory that his wife is beautiful and his children smart." Indeed, the crucial distinction generally hews between "it's none of your goddamn business" and "yes, actually it is." In the case of child starvation, for example, the laws and mores of our society are perfectly clear -- the latter prevails; it is our goddamn business. So why isn't it the same for fat kids?
A child who is starving will suffer any number of medical afflictions from catabolysois to anemia to atrophy to stunted growth. Likewise, an obese child is at an exponentially heightened risk of developing type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease, to say nothing of the psychological trauma and low self-esteem associated with the usually prolonged condition. There should be little to no distinction made, and yet starvation is rightly viewed as child abuse while obesity enjoys a censure free "epidemic" label, simply because it runs so rampant. Moreover, beyond moral grounds, the burden of child obesity on the health care system, according to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, is upward of $14 billion per year.
The reason we've heard so much about this issue for so long -- and why well argued, level-headed editorials such as the piece in the Times' this week go unheeded -- is because ad hoc instances of child obesity are not yet permissible targets for social condemnation. Perhaps it's because obesity runs so rampant in the adult population as well..."let he who is without sin cast the first stone." Regardless, the problem cannot simply be written off as hopelessly intractable -- especially not when widely-consensual societal pressure can be such a subtly powerful force.
Consider cigarettes, and those who peddle them to children. Someone would have to be crazy now to, say, light up in a playground -- and if he did, he'd presumably catch an earful or be run out altogether. The same is becoming increasingly true for many drivers of gas guzzlers as well. As such, the parents in question should no longer feel comfortable in a state of slothful complacency towards this problem without suffering the aggregated wrath of civilized society. Hopefully, the 2009 swine flu epidemic will by quelled. But this other, generational "epidemic" will remain as an affliction on our bodies, health care system, wallets and social fabric until we can truly exact the necessary attitudinal change.
We should hurry it along, fat kids deserve a chance too.