Karen Roach
Nearly 24 percent of Utahns are currently obese, a rate that has more than doubled since 1989. There are projections that it will nearly double again by the year 2050.

Utah lawmakers and individual citizens need to treat obesity as a health crisis.

Recent scientific studies raise the possibility that obesity may eventually surpass tobacco use as the leading cause of cancer in America. It is a startling prospect and one that deserves serious attention as we see rates of obesity climb in Utah to unprecedented levels. Nearly 24 percent of Utahns are obese, a rate that has more than doubled since 1989. There are projections that it will nearly double again by the year 2050.

Most disturbing are numbers that show obesity rates are climbing fastest among children, a trend some experts think could eventually result in an unprecedented lowering of the overall rate of life expectancy. Health officials in Utah have been surveying attitudes about obesity in an effort to fashion public service campaigns to bring sharper awareness to a problem that the studies show people largely underestimate. Health experts say that as much as 60 percent of the population is overweight to some degree.

Like tobacco use, there is a voluntary component to the behavioral factors that lead to a person becoming burdened by excess weight. Tobacco use has dropped by 30 percent in the last half-century. It is hard for nicotine addicts to give up their habits, just as it’s hard for people to lose weight or maintain proper weight. And, just as in the case of tobacco use, public education campaigns may be effective in addressing the problem.

A place to emphasize those efforts is in the early-grade classrooms of public schools. Since 1994, there has been a 30 percent increase in the rates of children becoming obese. Utah still enjoys a relatively low rate of childhood obesity compared with other states, but trends nationally show rates among all age groups are on the way up. Get Healthy Utah, a nonprofit coalition formed by the state Health Department, completed a survey that revealed a distinct disconnect between public perceptions about healthy weight levels and the reality of what it means to be obese. For instance, 11 percent of respondents believe they are “seriously overweight” when 30 percent of Utahns actually are. The survey also showed that about 25 percent of people are not worried about the trend.

They should be worried, as new studies show obesity carries the risk of certain cancers, just as it contributes to diabetes, cardiovascular disease and high blood pressure. Though a person’s genetic makeup can contribute to obesity, many people find themselves inching toward unhealthy weight levels as a result of personal behavior. Those are lifestyle choices that — as in the case of tobacco use — can be changed and are more likely to be changed when people are better aware of the dangers they face.