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If today's childhood obesity epidemic continues unabated, we will be faced with a daunting prospect: raising the first generation of American youth with a shorter life expectancy than their parents. Indeed, one-third of American children ages two to 19 are currently either obese or at risk of becoming obese. This marks a dramatic spike in the obesity rates among children of all ages nationwide since the 1960s. The related health risks are alarming. Obese children are increasingly being diagnosed with type 2 diabetes -- an affliction previously associated primarily with adults. These children will be at higher risk for having high blood pressure, and more of them will suffer from heart disease.
In 2003, legislators in Arkansas decided to take action to address childhood obesity by passing Act 1220 – which contained a unique, comprehensive plan for involving schools and communities across the state in the fight against obesity. To satisfy the Act's most prominent provision, The Arkansas Center for Health Improvement (ACHI) worked with policymakers and school personnel to create a system for measuring, weighing, and calculating BMI levels for all public school students. For each of the past three years, ACHI analyzed the resulting BMI data at the school, school district, and state levels. Due to its size and methodological rigor, ACHI's BMI database represents the country's most comprehensive and accurate single-state profile of the childhood obesity epidemic. In fall 2006, ACHI and Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee released results of the third annual Arkansas Assessment of Childhood and Adolescent Obesity. The most recent analysis of BMI data for over 371,000 public school students reveals that the percentage of youth classified as overweight decreased from 20.9 percent to 20.4 percent since the first year. Additionally, the percentage of students at risk of being overweight declined slightly from 17.2 percent in 2003-04 to 17.1 percent in 2005-06, and have continued to hold steady since. In a nation with skyrocketing obesity rates, this is promising news.
Through our work for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Burness Communications helped disseminate this important information. The landmark data release earned widespread media coverage. Highlights included a national Associated Press story that ran in the print or online editions of The Washington Post, USA Today, The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and nearly 70 other Web sites of newspapers, television news programs, and news magazines, such as TIME and The Economist. While major progress has been made in Arkansas, Governor Huckabee cautioned that much work still needs to be done. "This is not the destination," he said. "This is a turning point."