America’s expanding waistline and worsening health have triggered the call for a health campaign akin to the one waged against tobacco.
“When I look at what’s going on with obesity, it reminds me of what was going on with tobacco in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s when there was a lot of emphasis on personal responsibility, voluntary self-regulation and trying to make safe cigarettes,” said Stanton Glantz, director of the Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education at the University of California, San Francisco, in a Kaiser Health News story.

Glantz said the personal responsibility approach failed with smoking. What worked was when the focus shifted to public action and making cigarette companies liable.

Are smoking and obesity comparable? In terms of the number of smokers and the obese? The health care cost to society? The number of deaths? The engagement of the church?

Kaiser Health News story reported that 78 million American adults and 13 million young people are obese. That compares to 45 million smoking adults.

Obesity health problems account for between $147 billion and $190 billion each year while tobacco-related health costs stand at $96 billion.

Tobacco caused 467,000 deaths in 2005. Diabetes and other diseases caused by being obese, overweight and inactive account for some 407,000 deaths, said Kaiser Health News.

Obesity and tobacco share another commonality: Historically churches have evaded their responsibility to advocate for good health as evidence of good faith.

Smoking was an avoided sermon topic on the tobacco road that ran through the Bible Belt. Preachers smoked. Parishioners smoked, leaving their cigarette butts on church steps.

The first Southern Baptist Convention resolution on tobacco was adopted in 1933. It expressed the need for efforts to help young people “escape the experience of an habitual slavery to tobacco.”

When the U.S. Surgeon General noted the danger of smoking, the SBC passed a resolution in 1964 that said a “much-needed service” had been rendered. The resolution then pivoted to the need for a similar investigation of alcohol.

Not until 1984 did the SBC adopt an explicit resolution on cigarette smoking. That resolution urged churches to educate their members to refrain from smoking. It encouraged tobacco farmers “to switch to another crop” and called for an end to federal subsidies for tobacco.

When I arrived in January 1985 in Nashville, where a number of SBC offices are located, little evidence appeared in city restaurants and at the state capitol that residents had heard or cared about the SBC’s smoking resolution.

Much has changed in 27 years. Smoke-free restaurants are standard. Smokers are isolated to special rooms at airports. Smokers are shuttled to restricted areas.

As of today, the SBC has yet to pass a resolution on obesity. That is really not surprising given the high obesity rates in Bible Belt states.

US News & World Report listed the top 10 states with the highest obesity rates as Mississippi, Alabama, West Virginia, Tennessee, South Carolina, Oklahoma, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan and Arkansas tied with Ohio.

Many of these states also had another 30 percent of the population listed as overweight. And many were highly rated for high blood pressure and adult diabetes.

Obesity is a problem in the pulpit and pew – as smoking was a problem in the pulpit and pew a generation ago.

A public health campaign reduced smoking. Higher taxes, restricted smoking areas, dire warnings on cigarette packs, and discouraging children from taking up the habit had a positive impact.

Could a public health campaign reduce obesity?

Pro-health experts think so.

One does wonder, however, when the faith community will weigh in, supporting public policy efforts to address the food subsidies for unhealthy food ingredients, the food industry’s huge profits from unhealthy foods, and the need for taxes on unhealthy foods.

The regrettable answer is not any time soon, if the list of partner organizations involved in the Tennessee state “Eat Well Play More” campaign is any indication.

The Tennessee Obesity Taskforce identifies itself as representing “a broad-based, statewide coalition, which links scientists, clinicians, city planners, school officials, state agencies, policymakers, transportation experts, nutritionists, parents and representatives of our most vulnerable populations.”

The group that is missing? Clergy.

Where are the churches on the obesity issue?

RobertParham is executive editor of and executive director of its parent organization, the Baptist Center for Ethics. Follow him on Twitter at RobertParham1 and friendhim on Facebook.

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