Skip to content

Statement of Chairman Tom Harkin (D-IA) at the HELP Committee Hearing on Childhood Obesity: Beginning the Dialogue on Reversing the Epidemic

As Prepared for Delivery

“I am very pleased to convene this hearing – the first in a series – to focus on the childhood obesity epidemic and how we can reverse it.

“The harsh and sad reality is that, for the first time in our nation’s history, we are in danger of raising a generation of children who will live sicker and die younger than the generation before them.  Today, all the gains we have made in life expectancy thanks to public health and wellness programs are at risk.  And one of the main reasons is the seemingly inexorable rise in childhood obesity.

“Currently more than a third of our children are overweight or obese, and half of these children are clinically obese. Think about that:  More than one out of every six kids in America is obese.  This is more than twice the rate of just 30 years ago.

“As you all know, children who are overweight and obese are at greater risk for a whole range of serious health problems, both during their childhood and later on in adulthood.  Children who are obese are at risk for cardiovascular problems such as high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and type II diabetes.  And children and adolescents who are obese are likely to remain obese as adults.  As a result, one in three children born today runs the risk of developing type II diabetes, and others have higher risks of suffering severe health complications throughout their lives.  Unless we reverse this disturbing trend, countless children’s lives will be cut short, all because of a preventable condition.  

“Obesity’s toll on children is especially disturbing.  On the macro level, childhood obesity is a national public health crisis.  But on the individual level . . . for each child afflicted with this condition . . . it is something else.  It is a tragedy.  A Yale University study concluded that children who are overweight are stigmatized by their peers as early as age three.  They are subjected to teasing, rejection, and bullying, and are two to three times more likely to report suicidal thoughts as well as to suffer from high blood pressure and/or diabetes.  The author of the study concluded: ‘The quality of life for kids who are obese is comparable to the quality of life of kids who have cancer.’  If we are going to transform our nation into a true wellness society, we need to begin with our children.

“Childhood obesity is more than a threat to public health; it is a threat to public and private budgets.  By increasing the risk for chronic diseases, obesity drives up the cost of health care.  The costs for treating a child who is obese is approximately three times higher than the costs for treating an average weight child.  This adds up to $14 billion annually in direct health expenses, $3 billion of which is for children covered by Medicaid.

“As we will hear today, the childhood obesity epidemic has many causes, and everyone has a part to play if we hope to reverse this epidemic.  I applaud First Lady Michelle Obama for recognizing the urgency of this crisis, and for personally mobilizing a new national effort to combat it.  As she puts it, ‘we need commonsense solutions that empower families and communities to make healthy decisions for their kids.’

“I also applaud the Surgeon General, Dr. Regina Benjamin, for giving priority to the obesity epidemic in her vision for a healthy and fit nation.  As our Nation’s top doctor, her recommendations highlight the importance of addressing this problem not only from a clinical perspective, but also in our homes, childcare settings, schools, and neighborhoods. 

“It is just invaluable to have both the First Lady and the Surgeon General teamed up to take on this challenge. 

“And there are other reasons for optimism.  Two days ago, at a Health Affairs briefing on Childhood Obesity, researchers reported on multiple initiatives to address the factors driving childhood obesity.  Examples include improving primary care’s role in preventing children from becoming obese; promoting healthy behaviors through employer-based programs; and both community-based efforts and public-private partnerships that facilitate healthy choices by increasing access to healthy foods and physical activity. So there is a lot of experience and research out there to help us identify the best ways forward.

“Today we are beginning the dialogue, here in the HELP Committee, about how we can confront the crisis of childhood obesity.  To help us better understand the issue we will be hearing from four distinguished witnesses.  They will talk about how this epidemic has unfolded, and why.  They will also talk about smart, effective solutions that are emerging in America’s communities, in our doctor’s offices and through public-private partnerships.

“I thank all of our witnesses for coming today.  I will have more to say about each of them shortly.”