By ARTHUR GARSON Jr.
CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. -- For the first time since the Civil War, life expectancy of Americans is likely to decrease. Why? More people are obese, and obesity is linked with several diseases, including diabetes, heart and blood vessel disease, and colon cancer.
All kinds of tactics are being used to reverse the trend. The American Medical Association recently recommended a comprehensive analysis on the effect of a tax on unhealthy drinks. Bravo! At the University of Virginia Medical Center, we already have shown that a "tax" along with education works.
We introduced healthier snacks to vending machines and healthier choices to cafeteria selections. We didn't do away with the junk food, but we did educate our employees and the other primary users of our vending machines: our patients and their families.
For the vending machine program, we color-coded different snacks in vending machines. Items with more than 40 percent fat and 200 calories were coded with a red sticker, items with 35-40 percent fat and 140-200 calories were coded yellow and items with less than 5 percent fat and 140 calories were coded green.
Baked chips and trail mix are examples of green items. Colorful educational posters next to the machines explained the program and the preferred choices for healthier eating. We added a 5-cent surcharge to the red items.
Results from the first year of sales showed sales of the red items went down 5 percent; the yellow went up 30 percent and the green items went up 15 percent.
Overall sales increased by 4.5 percent. We collected over $7,000 in nickels that were contributed to the Children's Fitness Center. This was a "triple win": Consumers are eating healthier food, the vending machine companies are selling more product, and the Fitness Center started a new exercise program.
In other words, consumers are eating healthier food, while the vending machine companies are selling more products.
The program demonstrates that consumers made healthier choices when given the opportunity. They didn't have to be forced down that route.
As a physician with a keen interest in public health and public health policy, I've come to believe that in the long run, educated consumers are more likely to make better choices than coerced consumers.
Our next plan in Virginia is to move the project into the school system -- again with education and choices, not an outright ban.
The most important point about the school program will be the message that children will take home with them. This is an opportunity for children to learn and even to educate the adults in their lives.
There's a market for all this learning. We hear a lot about employers who want to cut health care costs.
One way to do this is to persuade employees to eat healthier foods. My phone keeps ringing, and my inbox is full of requests from employers and other medical centers that want to know what kind of program will help people make healthier choices at work or in school and keep their resolve when they get home.
Obesity is killing us. Let's try education -- and maybe a tax -- just like cigarettes.
Dr. Arthur Garson Jr. is dean of the University of Virginia School of Medicine and vice president of the University of Virginia. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.