Washington One-fifth of children are likely to be obese by 2010, yet the government killed a promising program that portrayed exercise as cool.
Other efforts to turn the tide of childhood obesity are scattershot and don't have enough money, the Institute of Medicine said Wednesday.
The institute did find some encouraging signs that the threat to children's health is being taken seriously. Programs that target youngsters' growing waistlines are sprouting nationwide, it said.
But no one knows which programs really help kids slim down, the institute said in calling for research to identify the best methods.
More troubling, the country lacks the national leadership needed to speed change, lamented an expert panel convened by the scientific group.
"Is this as important as stockpiling antibiotics or buying vaccines? I think it is," said Dr. Jeffrey Koplan of Emory University, who led the IOM's panel. "This is a major health problem. It's of a different nature than acute infectious threats, but it needs to be taken just as seriously."
To reinforce that point, Wednesday's report spotlighted the government's VERB campaign, a program once touted as spurring a 30 percent increase in exercise among the preteens it reached. It ended this year with Bush administration budget cuts.
VERB encouraged 9- to 13-year-olds to take part in physical activities, like bike riding or skateboarding. Slick ads, at a cost of $59 million last year, portrayed exercise as cool at an age when outdoor play typically winds down and adolescent slothfulness sets in.
The program's demise "calls into question the commitment to obesity prevention within government," the panel concluded.
Koplan, a former CDC director, was more blunt, calling it a waste of taxpayer money to develop a program that works and then dismantle it.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is "trying to do everything we can to package the research and lessons learned from VERB so it can inform campaigns local groups might take on throughout the country," responded CDC spokesman Jeff McKenna.
Wednesday's report shows "what the country is doing is like putting a Band-Aid on a brain tumor," said Margo Wootan of the consumer advocacy Center for Science in the Public Interest.