I Sit And Look Out: Gov’t must pass legislation to fight obesity in Queens

By Kenneth Kowald

On a rare visit to midtown Manhattan, I was reminded of the wonderful Duke Ellington song “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore.” This aging flack is grateful for any getting around he can do these days and a visit to the center of the center of the universe is always a joy for a native New Yorker.

It was midday and I walked from Penn Station, with the aid of a cane, to my luncheon meeting with a publishing executive at West 47th Street and 6th Avenue — correction, Avenue of the Americas. Once again, I gloried in the energy and diversity of the population on the streets. It is beyond description.

I love other cities. Elaine and I have been fortunate to visit London, Florence, Vienna, Copenhagen and Paris, but to this unrepentant civic booster, the sensible, tolerant city the Dutch established is incomparable.

As I went to and from my meeting, I noticed something I have read about and seen often, but never fully grasped until that early summer day. The number of overweight people — of all ages and races — was astonishing. You could see more of it because the warm weather meant less clothing to cover the excess weight.

“OK,” you might say, “so what?” If people want to be fat, what is the objection?

No objection, really, unless you consider that each of us, as taxpayers, should be concerned about the health of all people in our city, state and nation. We pay for our own and others’ health care, costing as much as $770 per household each year. Study after study shows obesity is a growing source of health problems in more of our population.

The Journal of the American Medical Association reported that two-thirds of Americans are overweight or obese. In New York City, it is estimated that 57 percent of adults are overweight or obese.

In August, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that 72.5 million Americans — more than a quarter of the population — are obese. The report estimates the medical costs of adult obesity to be as high as $147 billion a year. Childhood obesity costs are $14.1 billion a year.

Last year, a group of retired generals and admirals released a report entitled “Too Fat to Fight.” It noted that “Between 1995 and 2008, the proportion of potential recruits who failed their physicals because they were overweight rose nearly 70 percent.”

Army officials believe this kind of problem is the result of a legacy of junk food, video games and a reduction in gym classes in many high schools.

In September, the city Department of Health reported that 40 percent of children in kindergarten through eighth-grade are overweight or obese. Corona is the worst area in the city with this problem. I believe it may be because of what we used to call socio-economic problems, but that phrase is politically incorrect now. Another bad area was part of Jackson Heights.

Obesity is a known factor in type II diabetes, heart disease, some forms of cancer and asthma.

What can be done? Certainly we can see to it that healthy foods and information are available to everyone, regardless of status. Schools, houses of worship and local community groups can preach the gospel of eating well and sensibly.

We can pass legislation to make the availability of high-calorie foods more expensive. We have managed to cut back on smoking in our country by making the cost of this addiction a real aid to prevention. (It took me three efforts before I finally gave it up.)

No, do not impose the choices people make, but give them the choices and make everyone realize that the health of our citizens is important to each of us.

The day after my Manhattan walk, TimesLedger Newspapers reported on the Forever Young Day the rap star Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson sponsored in Baisley Pond Park. His message was to get children away from video games and other technology that keeps them from moving. He hopes the event will get kids to play ball and get involved in other healthy activities.

Local leaders can follow the rap star’s lead. It is never too soon. First Lady Michelle Obama has made it one of her “signature issues” and is talking about it wherever she goes.

That is what comes of taking a walk on a beautiful early summer day in the center of the center of the universe. Maybe I should get around more. Thank you, Duke Ellington!

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