Is obesity a threat to national security?

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Four times a year, the Pentagon releases a public review listing, in order of importance, what it perceives to be the biggest threat to  America.

This time, much to the unpleasant surprise of half of the Republican Party, climate change made it to the top of the list.

This development is no surprise to some of us. It is well documented and frequently debated in the public domain, and many governments around the world are working on plans that they hope will soften the impact of the predicted 2-4 degrees Celsius increase in average global temperatures.

But there is another, more imminent danger to our way of life, especially for us living in America:

The U.S. Department of Health recently issued a warning stating that, at the going rate, 44 percent of all Americans will be obese by 2020.

If that is to happen it could trigger not only a collapse in our already strained health care system but also an economic crisis that our society may not be able to handle.

From the minute we are born we are all helped by society to make sure that our upbringing is healthy and safe. As children and young adults we are given free education and laws and law enforcement ensure us equal opportunities and a chance to grow up to become productive members of society. Later, as grownups, it is now our turn to prepare for the next generation while we improve our own living conditions and contribute to the welfare of the elderly and the disabled.

This cycle is fundamental for our way of life and for the fulfillment of the "American Dream," and it is now in danger of collapsing under the burden of an obese and overweight population.

Already a majority of health care dollars spent are going toward treatment of numerous obesity-related conditions including diabetes, cardiovascular and cancer diseases.

A seriously obese person is basically handicapped. He or she has more sick days and will eventually be looking at a lower than average quality of life and a shorter lifespan overall. In other words, an obese person costs society more than that same person can contribute in a lifetime, thereby making him (or her) a liability and an all-around bad investment for our society and the economy that supports it.

I don't pretend to know what everyday life is like for an obese person, but as an overweight child I was bullied and made fun of by my playmates. So, at age 5, I swore a solemn oath that I would stay slim and trim for the rest of my life, and for the past 60 years I have daily renewed this commitment. Is there vanity involved? Absolutely! Vanity can be a good thing. How many obese persons can look themselves in the mirror and be pleased with what they see?

Obesity is more than a cultural phenomenon. It is about to become a national security issue and it is most certainly a moral issue. The American dream is a fine balance between give and take and with almost half the population classified as overweight or obese we are facing a clear and present danger to this balance, to the health of the nation and ultimately to United States as a world leader.

In the Virgin Islands, obesity is everywhere: From our highest elected officials down through the ranks of all government departments, private businesses and among retired Virgin Islanders, but most frightening is what we see among our children, even at pre-school level.

And once you are obese as a child, you are almost certain to stay that way as you grow older because when you look around you, you see others just like you, making it all too easy to accept your condition as the norm.

Can society cope with more than a hundred million severely overweight Americans? Are supermarkets going to widen the checkouts? Are airlines providing extra large seats? Can the armed forces fight a war with obese personnel? Should MRIs and operating tables be built to accommodate more volume and weight, and are there new ways for law enforcement officers to get to their guns? Are coffins being built stronger and wider, and are SUVs the only means of transportation for this class of super-sized drivers?

Two major industries have taken steps that clearly outline what lies in wait for this seriously overweight segment of the population, and their actions may prove to work better than the advice and warnings you get from your physician. It is all about the money: the airlines and health insurancer providers.

We have all been asked for our weight when taking the Seaborne shuttle between islands. Flying is all about payload, and smaller planes are particularly sensitive. But while Seaborne doesn't charge you extra for your extra body weight, a Hawaiian inter-Island airline has started doing just that - and they are not alone. Several major airlines have discreetly implemented policies dealing with the issue.

Southwest, American, United, Midwest, Jet Blue, Delta and Air France will, at no charge, try to accommodate obese (250 pounds or more) passengers if there are unoccupied seats on the plane. If not, the passenger may have to buy an upgrade to a bigger seat up front, and if the plane is full: Sorry! Try the next available flight.

Several attempts to sue airlines over these policies have been dismissed or ruled in favor of the airline.

I will not be surprised if, in the very near future, you'll be required to state your weight when booking an airfare and pay accordingly.

Is it fair? Well, here is a puzzle for you:

Passenger A's combined body and luggage weight is 190 pounds.

Passenger B's combined body and luggage weight is 300 pounds.

Guess who has to pay an extra $125 under existing rules?

Answer: Passenger A, the 90-pound passenger with 2 pieces of luggage.

Financial pressure also is also emerging from the health care insurance providers:

Michelin North America have notified their workforce that, beginning next year, obese workers will have to pay up to $1,000 extra in health insurance.

Pharmacy chain CVS is charging its workers up to an additional $600 based on the employee's body fat, blood sugar, blood pressure and cholesterol level.

Honeywell International, Mohawk Industries and others have similar programs running based on the fact that 20 percent of any workforce accounts for 80 percent of all health care costs.

If you are a bad driver, your car insurance cost goes up. Likewise if you are obese, you are a bad risk and your health insurance cost may go up.

I have deliberately avoided touching on various underlying reasons for the obesity epidemic. But conversations with local physicians have revealed that the Virgin Islands ranks among the worst in the nation, and while there are explanations and excuses enough to go around, the fact remains that you cannot gain weight by just breathing the air. Something else has to go with it.

You see the commercials that guarantee results if you buy their pills or eat their food. You hear about spas and fat farms where rich people go for treatments, and you know about liposuction and more serious gut removing surgery, all of which have limited success, while the overall obesity rate keeps on climbing.

Let's face it, we need drastic action.

Leading by example works everywhere, but it is particularly effective in a small society like the Virgin Islands.

So, here is a plan that I think will work and at the same time give us positive PR exposure nationwide.

On a given day, Gov. John DeJongh Jr. would call a press conference. On the stage with him would be personnel from the executive branch, Delegate to Congress Donna Christensen and her crew, members of the Senate and as many doctors and nurses as the hospitals could spare.

With much fanfare, our governor would announce that he and his branch will lose one ton of excess weight between now and Christmas.

Following the governor, other branches of government would make similar pledges. A huge scoreboard would be set up in a public place on each island, and monthly weigh-in totals for each group displayed on the board. All public and private schools would be urged to participate, and why not make it a competition between the islands?

The goal: Shed 100 tons of excess weight for the entire territory.

- Steffen Larsen

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