By Tom Wilemon, The Tennessean
The state's top health official on Tuesday compared Tennessee's obesity epidemic to drug addiction and called on chambers of commerce to confront the problem.
"I'm pretty convinced that when we are talking about obesity and being overweight, we're dealing with something that is a chronic relapsing disease. It's not going to be easy to move this needle," state Commissioner of Health Dr. John Dreyzehner said, speaking at a joint summit of the Tennessee Obesity Task Force and Gov. Bill Haslam's Health and Wellness Task Force.
Although about 100 people attended, Dreyzehner noted that most of the people there were the "usual suspects" - representatives of health organizations. When the governor's wellness task force identified the epidemic as its top priority, Haslam called on business leaders to do more.
"We do not have the business community at our table in a meaningful way," said Joan Randall, executive director of the Tennessee Obesity Task Force. "We are hoping today we can step that up a notch."
Businesses that did send representatives to the meeting included Advance Financial, Eastman Chemical, Clayton Homes, Ingram Industries and Alcoa Inc.
Dr. John Lacey, who chairs the governor's task force, said Tennessee has an opportunity to distinguish itself.
"The entire nation is looking for the answers. What I want to do is challenge us to find the answers, to be the answer in this state and then to take that answer to the rest of the country," Lacey said.
Local chambers of commerce are at the top of the list for engagement, Dreyzehner said. "We would like to have an entity in every county actively engaged and passionate about this particular issue," he said.
Nashville Mayor Karl Dean talked about Barge Waggoner, Sumner & Cannon Inc., an architectural and engineering firm that has morning boot camp activities for its employees.
"Every day, more than 400,000 Nashvillians go to a place of work and many of them spend more waking hours there than at any other place," Dean said. "As a result, our workplaces are more than just critical economic drivers. They are critical in shaping how we live, how we eat and the kind of physical activity we get."
Community-wide efforts also have proven effective. Dreyzehner told about a weight-loss competition in Putnam County that got 91 teenagers involved.
John Robert Smith, president of Reconnecting America who gave they keynote address, said as mayor of Meridian, Miss, he challenged residents to lose 10,000 pounds. Oprah Winfrey heard about the effort, taped a show there and drew 5,000 people. Over three to four months, the people of Meridian lost about 9,000 pounds.
Ben Leedle, the president of health-care company Healthways, suggested that personal coaching for gradual weight loss can be more effective. He said a 5 percent weight loss can help prevent 40 percent to 50 percent of people with pre-diabetes from falling victim to that disease.