Lawmakers consider employer role in controlling obesity

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As American waistlines expand, there's little surprise that this public health issue poses a challenge to the nation's employers. In some states, including New York and California, government regulators are stepping in to urge businesses to take action.

At a special meeting of the California Legislative Task Force on Diabetes and Obesity on Wednesday, October 8, chaired by California State Assemblyman Joe Coto, experts discussed the benefits of workplace wellness programs, the role of the employer, and the economic impact of this serious public health threat. Task Force members incorporated this testimony into their discussion for use as a basis for potential legislation in California.

"The biotechnology industry proudly supports and commends the Legislative Diabetes and Obesity Task Force in their efforts to combat this epidemic," said Joe Panetta, President and CEO of BIOCOM, the association for the Southern California life science community. "The life science industry has been at the forefront in improving and sustaining the health of our workforce through workplace wellness programs. We understand that it makes good business sense and creates a more productive workforce."

American workers want help from their employers to lose weight according to a 2007 national survey of 500 members of the Synovate Global Opinion Panel (SGOP) who are overweight and work full-time outside of the home. Two out of three respondents to this survey report that they are interested in employer-sponsored weight control programs. But less than half (44 percent) of overweight employees have access to these types of programs.

Johnson & Johnson has one of the first corporate wellness models that dates back nearly 30 years. "We hope that our example can help other employers evolve beyond flu shots and blood pressure screenings to truly have a positive influence on the well being of the people who work for them," said Susan Tierman, M.D., Medical Director of North America for Johnson & Johnson.

Overweight and obesity has been associated with an increased cost of healthcare, lost work days, absenteeism, low productivity, and high turnover rates in the workplace. In California alone, the annual cost of medical care attributable to obesity is estimated to be nearly $7.7 billion in a state where more than half of all adults (55.9 percent) are either overweight or obese.

"It is important for employers to offer programs with realistic end goals in mind -- specifically that modest, gradual weight loss is best. These types of programs are the best way to help reduce the financial impact of increased health care costs -- and should be a part of every business's employee wellness program," said MRC Greenwood, Ph.D., an obesity expert and co-chair of the Reality Coalition, a consumer advocacy organization aimed at getting consumers to adopt healthy, realistic approaches to weight loss that include diet, exercise, and evidence-based medicine and programs.

About Overweight and Obesity

Currently, approximately 65 percent of U.S. adults are overweight or obese, according to the National Institutes of Health. Research suggests that overweight individuals appear to be on the pathway to obesity. Overweight and obesity are associated with an increased risk of developing health problems such as hypertension, type 2 diabetes and heart disease. Factors that can contribute to overweight include an abundance of high-calorie foods, low levels of physical activity, behavior, environment, and genetics. Multiple studies have shown that a modest reduction in weight improves health outcomes significantly in overweight or obese patients.

About the Reality Coalition

The Reality Coalition is a group of esteemed experts on obesity, nutrition, diabetes and healthcare policy who share the common goal of advancing an agenda for realistic approaches to weight loss to achieve improved public health.

The Reality Initiative was launched in 2006 and is supported by an educational grant from GlaxoSmithKline Consumer Healthcare. The Coalition developed a white paper entitled Help Not Hype: Getting Real About Weight Loss (published in Obesity Management, February 2007), which was introduced in partnership with the Federal Trade Commission at NAASO, The Obesity Society annual meeting in October 2006. Committed to changing the national weight loss dialogue and broadening its sponsorship base, the Coalition is expanding its efforts in 2007 to invite business leaders, private, public, professional and non-profit groups to partner in its work.

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