Rapid Response: The Conversation on Chronic Disease Prevention
Two newsworthy items debuted this month, launching the issue of chronic disease—and what can be done to reverse current trends—into the media. A new report by the Institute of Medicine, Accelerating Progress in Obesity Prevention, laid out key recommendations and strategies for preventing chronic disease. Following on its heels was The Weight of the Nation, a 4-part HBO documentary highlighting the scope of the problem, and the myriad contributing factors. At a time when rates of type 2 diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and even some cancers are reaching unprecedented levels, costing the nation over $190 billion a year, these resources—coming from some of the nation’s leading health agencies— serve as a clear call to action to reverse these trends.
The media plays a powerful role in influencing the public, and as the IOM report and HBO documentary continue to make headlines, the resulting upswing in media attention provides a prime opportunity to elevate the importance of healthy community environments, and reinforce the role that governments and corporations play in shaping health. Here are some media bites:
- The New York Times quoted a producer of the HBO documentary: “It’s not a coincidence that the foods that are marketed the most are the foods that are the most processed and the most profitable…Those foods shape the cravings of the public. That then shapes the diet and is now shaping the nation.” And while he acknowledged the role of personal responsibility, he reinforced the broader message by adding “you cannot say that all these people have lost all their willpower…There’s clearly something more powerful going on.”
- "People have heard the advice to eat less and move more for years, and during that time a large number of Americans have become obese," stated an IOM committee member in Reuters article. “That advice will never be out of date. But when you see the increase in obesity you ask, what changed? And the answer is, the environment. The average person cannot maintain a healthy weight in this obesity-promoting environment."
- The Boston Globe opens their recent piece with: “Obesity, once seen as a failure of personal responsibility and lack of willpower, has been repackaged…as a complicated phenomenon that’s largely resulting from societal pressures that make it far easier for us to commute by car rather than by bike and to eat McDonald’s rather than steamed vegetables with tofu.”
These stories, along with countless others, indicate progress in shifting the public discourse on healthy eating and activity environments--away from a sole focus on individuals, and toward the social and environmental factors at play. Despite this overall messaging—with a refreshing acknowledgment of non-existent parks, unsafe streets, fast food restaurants on every corner, and junk food advertisements at every turn—the language used to illustrate the problem still tends to default to individual-focused, stigmatizing phrases. Phrases like “Americans...are simply too fat,” and references to “expanding waistlines” crept into the coverage, most of which inevitably circled back to the issues of “weight,” “fat,” and “obesity.” Too often, the images that accompany the headlines zoom in on overweight individuals, rather than depicting sidewalks in disrepair or egregious food advertisements clearly intended for children.
“Obesity is merely a symptom of a much bigger problem,” Berkeley Media Studies Group noted in a recent blog. Honing in on obesity in and of itself inadvertently shifts the source of the problem (and, in effect, the solution) onto the individual, obscuring the critical need for environmental and policy-driven solutions (read more about the importance of framing and language in The O Word: Why the Focus on Obesity is Harmful to Community Health and The Problem with Obesity). Nevertheless, the recent HBO documentary and IOM report have captured the public’s attention, and laid out clear directives for action for policymakers, health professionals, and community members to make health-promoting environments the norm for all.
- Send a letter to the editor or post an online comment in response to related news coverage you come across, highlighting the importance of environmental and policy solutions to advance health. Visit Strategic Alliance’s website for some quick tips on getting a letter published.
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