"We simply don't have the political will to protect the public health."
That sums up the assessment of the US presidential panel on cancer. It was Margaret Kripke of the Anderson cancer center at University of Texas and a panel member who made that stinging comment.
Federal, state, and local policies have actually made healthful foods more expensive and less available, have limited physical education in schools and created an environment that discourages physical activity, the panel's report said.
The federal government should "require the elimination of unhealthy foods from school breakfast and lunch programs" and "must cease being a purveyor of unhealthy foods that lead to disease and increased health care costs," the report stressed.
This includes regulation of food advertising and changing agricultural support policies, it said.
"We heavily subsidize the growth of foods (e.g., corn, soy) that in their processed forms (e.g., high fructose corn syrup, hydrogenated corn and soybean oils, grain-fed cattle) are known contributors to obesity and associated chronic diseases, including cancer," the report reads.
"The people who are doing the U.S. agricultural subsidies need to connect their subsidies with the policy on public health and I don't think that has been done," Kripke said.
Yet fresh fruits and vegetables are not subsidized in the same way. "And physical education classes in school have almost disappeared," Kripke said.
The report, issued on Thursday, also urged changes in public and private insurance policies to encourage doctors to spend more time counseling patients on how to stay healthy by eating right, exercising and avoiding tobacco.
"Ineffective policies, in conjunction with limited regulation of sales and marketing in the food and beverage industry, have spawned a culture that struggles to make healthy choices -- a culture in dire need of change," said the report, available on the Internet at http://pcp.cancer.gov.
Several reports have shown that a third of all cancers are caused by tobacco use, and another one-third by obesity and inactivity.
The report recommended much stricter control of the tobacco industry and urged Congress to authorize the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to regulate tobacco.
"The report also supports increasing the federal cigarette tax, which is currently 39 cents per pack," American Cancer Society Chief Executive Officer John Seffrin said in a statement.
"The panel's recommendation runs counter to the president's public opposition to a tobacco tax increase."
"This country must not ignore its moral obligation to protect the health of all Americans. We can and must empower individuals to make healthy choices through appropriate policy and legislation, and the panel urges you to use the power of your office toward this life-saving goal," the panel, chaired by Howard University's Dr. LaSalle Leffall, wrote in a letter to Bush.
The American Cancer Society predicts more than 1.4 million Americans will be diagnosed with cancer in 2007 and that 559,650 will die.