Thursday, April 7, 2011

McDonald's Is Right?

I never thought that I would actually say this, but a spokesman for McDonald's is right.

The other day, a New York City councilman introduced legislation that would prohibit handing out toys or games with any meal that doesn't meet certain nutritional guidelines. Fines would range from $200 to $500 for the first offense. Similar bills have been proposed nationwide. San Francisco lawmakers enacted just such an ordinance last year.

Mason Smoot, vice president and general manager for McDonald's New York region, issued a statement saying that taking toys out of Happy Meals won't solve the childhood obesity epidemic. He noted that kids eat the majority of their meals away from fast food restaurants. "That adds up to a larger discussion than toys," he said.

Smoot is right. Toys are not the issue. Don't get me wrong, I am not one to defend McDonald's and its impact on America's ever-growing waistline, but as I've written in the past, banning toys from Happy Meals is hardly a long-term solution to our penchant for unhealthy eating. Now I know that the big news this week isn't the debate over putting a plastic Superman in with your kid's chicken nuggets. CMS' proposed ACO regulations and the budget showdown that threatens to shut down the government are top of mind, and rightfully so. But, a larger, more thoughtful and reasoned discussion about attacking the nation's obesity epidemic is absolutely something we should have as we test new ways to deliver care and attempt to curtail runaway deficits.

The Centers for Disease Control & Prevention in 2009 issued a report showing that the increased prevalence of obesity added $40 billion in medical costs between 1998 and 2006, including $7 billion in Medicare prescription drug costs. Obesity was responsible for 9.1 percent of annual medical spending, compared to 6.5 percent in 1998. CDC went on to predict that total annual costs for treating obesity would climb to $147 billion by 2008, up from $78.5 billion in 1998. The National Bureau of Economic Research in 2010 pegged the number at $168.4 billion or 16.5 percent of medical costs.

From other CDC data, we know that 6.5 percent of children aged 6 to 11 were obese in 1980. In 2008, it was 19.6 percent. Among teens, the percentage soared from 5 percent to 18 percent. Obese youths are more likely to develop risk factors for cardiovascular disease and diabetes. They are at greater risk for bone and joint problems, as well as sleep apnea and psychological problems.

The problem is so much more complex than Happy Meals. It crosses almost all socioeconomic issues—education, jobs and the economy, economic development. Hospitals can't control many of the leading causes of obesity. Instead, they have to deal with the effects. Until we take a holistic approach to addressing the obesity epidemic, there will be little bend in that cost curve they are talking about in Washington, D.C.


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