Arkansas Rethinks Child Obesity Reports

Danita Thomas and her son Irie pose in the kitchen of their Hope, Ark., home Friday, Feb. 2, 2007. Thomas said she didn't need a report from school to know her teenage son Irie was too heavy, but since getting that first body mass index report two years ago, Irie has lost nearly 100 pounds and sworn off junk food and sugary sodas, once staples of his unhealthy diet. (AP Photo/Steve Fellers) AP Photo

Arkansas — the first state to send home obesity report cards to warn parents of overweight kids' health risks — may ditch the plan or weaken it with the help of the new governor.

Gov. Mike Beebe said the school weigh-ins and report cards had "a lot of negative, unintended consequences" and hurt some children's self-esteem. He favors letting parents drop out of the program more easily and wants the state to test children less often.

His predecessor, former Gov. Mike Huckabee, said reversing the state's trendsetting, 3-year-old effort, "would be a huge step backwards."

It's worth noting that Beebe, a Democrat, has no weight problem. Huckabee, a Republican, used to weigh 280 pounds, and before he began campaigning for president he campaigned against the ills of obesity.

Since Arkansas adopted its school-based anti-obesity program, California, Florida and Pennsylvania have launched similar efforts. And public health officials in Arkansas point to a slight drop in the state's childhood obesity rate since the program got going.

But some lawmakers say that telling parents their children weigh too much could hurt children's self-esteem. Some also question whether it's the role of schools to monitor students' weight or if it even makes a difference.

Supporters of the current program, like Dr. Karen Young at Arkansas Children's Hospital, say fat children have self-esteem problems regardless.

"The kids who are overweight are already being teased," said Young, who directs a pediatric fitness clinic. "These poor children, they're suffering. It doesn't take the letter for them to suffer."

Young has gained a number of new young patients trying to lose weight since schools began requiring the BMI reports.

Arkansas' program began in 2004 after the Legislature directed public schools to weigh and measure children, calculating their body-mass index (BMI), a number used to determine whether their weight is appropriate for their age.

Huckabee championed the program as he dropped 110 pounds after being diagnosed with diabetes. Beebe, who took office Jan. 9, wants Arkansas to test children less often and make it easier to let parents opt out.

"There are a lot of things schools should be doing, but there are a lot of things parents should be doing and one of them is trying to make sure their kids stay healthy," Beebe said.

The Arkansas House last week approved a bill that would repeal the BMI report cards altogether, horrifying health experts who see the program as a wake-up call for families.

"It's spurring some major action on the part of parents," Young said. "Some of them really don't know their child is overweight until they get the letter."

Danita Thomas of Hope said she didn't need a report from school to know her teenage son Irie was too heavy. But since getting that first BMI report two years ago, Irie has lost nearly 100 pounds and sworn off junk food and sugary sodas — once staples of his unhealthy diet.

"It was helpful, but I already knew it," Danita Thomas said. "It made me realize that we needed to do some things different."

The 17-year-old now regularly goes to Young's clinic to help him with his weight loss.

Rep. Keven Anderson, R-Rogers, who filed the proposal to eliminate the BMI test altogether, said he didn't believe the BMI reports were effective tools.

"At some point, the parent has got to take some responsibility for the health of their children," Anderson said. "I don't think sending a report home saying you're in or out of the range is going to make a difference."

However, doctors from the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences have told lawmakers that the BMI reports and other steps, such as limits on vending machine use, were leading to healthier students.

Last year, a study showed that the percentage of Arkansas children who were overweight or at risk of becoming overweight was 37.5 percent, down from 38.1 percent in 2004. University figures from a later study showed that 68 percent of parents and 85 percent of students said they were comfortable with the reports.

That survey also found that the percentage of students reporting being teased because of their weight was 6 percent, half what it was two years earlier.

Young said that 13 percent of the children who come to her fitness clinic do so after getting the obesity report cards from school.

Jim Raczynski, dean of UAMS, opposes weakening the law, saying 20 percent of students already are opting out of the weigh-in program.

"No one's forcing children to stand on the scales, no one's holding them down and I can't imagine any school forcing students or their parents to undergo the BMI assessments if they aren't willing to do it," Raczynski said.
  • Sean Alfano

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