As Arkansas Remains Highly Obese, State Health Officials Consider New Solutions

Dec 12, 2013

Credit Centers For Disease Control and Prevention

For the past decade, Arkansas health officials have taken significant steps to curb obesity in the state. But Arkansas still ranks third nationally in the percentage of obese adults, at nearly 35 percent of its total population last year. On Thursday and Friday, more than 60 public health experts and officials from around the state will convene at Petit Jean Mountain for a summit to assess ideas for dealing with the epidemic over the next ten years.  KUAR’s Chris Hickey spoke with two officials about previous policy efforts and what Arkansas can do about obesity in the future.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there has been a dramatic increase in obesity among adults since 1990. When data on the subject was first collected in Arkansas in 1991, the state had a rate of obesity of less than 15 percent. Since then it’s more than doubled. Arkansas, along with other southern states, has typically led the nation in the percentage of obese adults over the past 20 years. That doesn’t mean the state hasn’t tried to correct the problem, however.

"I think we are doing a lot of things that other states are following. So...we need to claim credit for having led the way and continuing to push on that accelerator,” says Arkansas Surgeon General Dr. Joe Thompson.

Thompson points to Act 1220, passed by the Arkansas Legislature in 2003. It addressed obesity in children and mandated the yearly measurement of Body Mass Index or BMI of school kids. It also banned vending machines in schools and created community health advisory committees.

“Act 1220 was the first one like that in the United States and it got a lot of publicity and now has been adopted in one form or another by many other states. But it was a very innovative thing,” says Dr. Joe Bates, Deputy State Health Officer for the state of Arkansas.

Both Bates and Thompson agree that act 1220, which was pushed through the legislature by then-House Speaker Herschel Cleveland and Governor Mike Huckabee, raised awareness among children and families about obesity. Before it was passed, Bates says, obesity in children had been sharply rising.

“That steep incline has plateaued and has leveled off and may be coming down slightly. And that’s true round the nation too. It’s not just peculiar to Arkansas. The escalating epidemic of childhood obesity seems to be sort of stabilizing,” he says.

The BMI data collected in Arkansas schools over the past decade have shown not much change. Every year about 20 percent of kids are shown to be obese and about 17 percent are shown to be overweight, while most of the rest are shown to be at a healthy weight. This week’s summit, hosted by the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute, will also focus on the adult obesity epidemic. But both Bates and Thompson acknowledge further efforts in the public policy arena to affect obsesity can only go so far. Surgeon General Thompson says he thinks there should be more focus on creating active spaces in communities.

Some of his ideas are: “helping make public spaces safe and readily available for physical activity, looking at food supply, looking at work sites where people spend a majority of their day and their time.”

Dr. Bates says proposing a law requiring nutritional labeling on restaurants’ menus is another idea.

“But you know getting menu labeling done in our legislature would be a big hill to climb. The food industry is very very strong in their lobbying efforts and their TV advertising,” he says.

Bates notes that the agenda of the summit is fairly non-specific and its hard to tell what the outcome will be. But Dr. Thompson is hopeful the group can find new ways to combat obesity over the next ten years.

“I don’t know that we’ll have specific legislative action that comes out of the summit,” says Thompson. I would say historically, Act 1220 came out of a not dissimilar—I don’t know we called it a summit or a conference or a strategic planning effort—the year before.”

Nonetheless, Dr. Thompson and Dr. Bates still recommend a combination of a healthy low-calorie diet and regular, vigorous exercise as the best strategy for anyone looking to lose weight.

Correction: A previous version of this article stated the the summit would be hosted by the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation. It is actually being hosted by the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute.