Thursday, October 11, 2012

Conversations Don’t Kill, But Obesity Does

By Scott Braddock
Houston Journalist and Political Analyst

I’ve interviewed many doctors who all say one of the most difficult conversations they can have is telling a parent their child is obese. But, they say investing in the sensitivity and care that goes into that conversation is worth it because it’s the first step in turning around a young person’s life. The magic, they say, is in initiating the conversation so the parents have accurate information and can plot a course for what to do next.

This is why I was more than a little aghast when a news anchor from Wisconsin lashed out at a viewer who wrote an email to her pointedly addressing her weight. Ken Krause, the viewer, wrote to WKBT news anchor Jennifer Livingston “Surely you don’t consider yourself a suitable example for this community’s young people, girls in particular.” Livingston took to the airwaves to say it was a “personal attack” and “If you are at home and you are talking about the fat news lady, guess what? Your children are probably going to go to school and call someone fat.”

That set off a national firestorm with many saying Krause should be ashamed of himself.

And that’s the problem: Anyone who brings up a person’s obesity is told it’s just something you don’t talk about. While Krause’s tact in no way resembles the care of those doctors I mentioned, his point is not invalid.

Here in Texas, the costs are being discussed. Dr. Eduardo Sanchez, the chief medical officer of Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Texas, recently said “Obesity is costing us in terms of productivity in the workplace and competitiveness with our fellow states, and I would argue even other countries.” This is an economic epidemic. The Comptroller’s Office says obesity could cost businesses across Texas as much as $32.5 billion per year by 2030.

Nationwide, it’s estimated that annual costs for prescription drugs, emergency room treatment and outpatient services related to childhood obesity total more than $14 billion, with an additional $238 million in inpatient hospital costs.

Conservatives will no doubt argue that parents are to blame for the size and related health problems of their children. To some extent, they’re right. But, I would argue we have a social responsibility to make sure parents have better options when it comes to decisions that will ultimately cost us all more for health care.

The more this conversation is removed from politics, the more sense people tend to make.

Former Texas Health and Human Services Executive Commissioner Tom Suehs has said he would have gotten in trouble for saying so when he was in office, but he now supports consideration of a soda tax to discourage consumption of the sugary stuff. He likened it to the way we tax tobacco to both discourage its use and defray costs associated with the health problems caused by those products.

In New York, Mayor Michael Bloomberg has taken a lot of heat for banning sweetened drinks larger than 16 ounces. Former President Clinton has said it’s a “tragedy” that people are putting that much sugar into their bodies on a daily basis. In Richmond, California, voters are getting ready to decide whether to implement a soda tax and whether to use the money it would collect for more playgrounds to fight childhood obesity.

While the debate rages about whether a TV viewer in Wisconsin was way out of line to point out an obvious problem, somewhere a doctor is getting ready to, as gently as possible, break the news to a loving parent that their child has that same problem. There are things we can all do to help that parent fix it.

Mr. Braddock is a journalist and political analyst based in Houston. He blogs at This article originally appeared in The Dallas Morning News.

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