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Is Obesity Overtaking Tobacco Use as Top Threat to Kids in Public Mind?

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Youth smoking had a good run as a top-of-mind issue among U.S. parents and preventionists — 30 years or more, by some estimates — but now seems to have taken a back seat to childhood obesity in the national consciousness. Everyone from Michele Obama to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation — the latter once a major force in tobacco prevention — seems to be joining the battle to slim down America’s fat kids.

As Gina Kolata writes in the New York Times, however, some health officials are dismayed at the shift in focus. They point out that the death toll from smoking is higher, and that nobody is quite sure yet how to best prevent obesity, whereas tobacco prevention has been proved effective.

“I certainly don’t want to go on record as saying too much money is going into obesity prevention,” said obesity researcher Jeffrey Friedman of Rockefeller University, yet, “smoking very clearly represents a substantial health risk,” he said. In some ways, smoking prevention is a victim of its own success: youth smoking rates are down siginificantly after a spurt of antismoking funding and attention in the late 1990s and early 2000s, but with money and attention drying up many worry that a resurgence in underage tobacco use may be looming.

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