Making the grade

February 28, 2006

The day every school in Maryland offers daily physical education classes, serves low-fat cafeteria meals and bans junk food is the day lawmakers can mandate a "health report card" judging student body weight. Childhood obesity is a serious epidemic in this country; in the past two decades, obesity among adolescents has nearly tripled. But it's a medical issue and needs to be handled as such. A doctor or other health professional is far better equipped to advise families about a child's development than the state's beleaguered schools.

Yet some members of the General Assembly are advocating legislation that would require schools to take a periodic measurement of height and weight and create a body mass index calculation to send home to parents. What joy that would bring to teens with low self-esteem. It also defies simple logic: Any parents who haven't noticed their child's weight until the school sends home a report card are unlikely to take corrective action anyway.

But what's really infuriating is how these legislators can't see the hypocrisy. It's parents who ought to be sending health report cards to school boards to chide them for cutting back on gym and selling out to snack and soft drink vendors. In Baltimore County, for instance, most elementary school students take a physical education class once per week - which also, by coincidence, is about how often cheese and pepperoni pizza is served in the county schools' cafeterias.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that obesity costs the nation's health care system at least $75 billion a year. In Maryland, a majority of adults are considered to be overweight. The consequences of this are well-documented, and include a greater likelihood of hypertension, diabetes, heart disease and some forms of cancer. But few states have adopted the report card approach for kids. As Baltimore psychiatrist Dr. Harry Brandt, a leading expert on eating disorders, observed, the bills' proponents could make matters worse by "further accentuat[ing] the idea that weight is of extreme importance."

The nation's childhood obesity problem isn't going to be solved easily, and no doubt there's a role for schools to play. But before lawmakers start passing bad, if well-intentioned, laws, they ought to stick to the basics - such as making sure public schools are offering the diet and exercise regime needed to keep kids healthy.

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