A panel of diverse experts said that other countries were catching up with the U.S. in terms of obesity rates, but the prevalence of obesity in society is not set in stone. The discussion from the 2012 Milken InstituteGlobal Conference focused on strategies for obesity prevention and intervention.
Moderator Sharon Begley, senior health & science correspondent at Reuters, opened the session by highlighting the problem.
“The crisis is so severe,” she said. “Obesity levels threaten to wipe out all the other gains in improved health we have made through biomedical innovation over the past decades.”
Throughout the panel, Kent Bradley, senior vice president and chief medical officer of Safeway Inc., noted the variability in obesity rates across countries, counties, and school districts. Stressing the importance of community in health, he said that “getting into solutions, we need to look at how people are spending most of their time. As an employer there is a great opportunity to make a difference.”
James Pope, vice president and chief science officer, Healthways, Inc., spoke to the difference in obesity rates across races, age ranges, marital status, and countries, as well as some of the experiments and trials that have shed light on possible interventions. His conclusion on different weight loss strategies was not “about if we have methods that can work, but how do we get them to work in a sustained fashion.”
Tomas Philipson, senior fellow at the Milken Institute and professor of public policy studies at the University of Chicago, highlighted different economic aspects of the obesity trend and interventions, and when the panel began to discuss different strategies to fight obesity, stated strongly that he thought the best solutions rested in biomedical innovation and not education, saying that “education is a dead end, a complete dead end.”
Other panelists disagreed, saying that an important strategy with an education component is the ability to create sustained behavior change and new habits. As Francine Kaufman, chief medical officer and vice president of global medical, clinical and health affairs of Medtronic Diabetes, pointed out, “a lot of the interventions are very short-term… and they show with some kind of restriction that is often difficult to sustain.” They noted that the key to success is discovering the science behind behavior change.
David Kirchoff, president and CEO of Weight Watchers International Inc., agreed with both Philipson and Kaufman, sharing some of his own insights. “I personally don’t have a lot of confidence that people are going to come up with a magical biotech pill,” he said, and emphasized the need to start with an individual and systematically establishing new habits. He also spoke to the role of primary care physicians in obesity prevention and treatment, noting that he does not think “that primary care is perfectly designed to deliver behavior modification” but when patients and doctors do have that discussion, nobody else can even come close to a doctor in creating a sense of urgency and accountability among individuals.
Overall, the panel spotlighted varying perspectives on potential solutions to the increasing prevalence of obesity globally. When asked the final question on obesity rates in America 18 years from now, however, all panelists were optimistic that rates will decrease from 34 percent to around 25-27 percent, ending the session on a positive note.