As 17th U.S. Surgeon General, I was privileged to serve as the nation’s doctor.  I focused much of my time on promoting proven programs and individual steps that lead to good health.  As a father, physician and nurse, I have a special place in my heart for children and I know the brief window of opportunity we have to teach them simple lessons that can lead to a lifetime of good health.  With nearly 17 percent of American children and adolescents overweight or obese, we must focus on this problem now before it is too late. 

For example, many of our children face an uphill battle against weight gain because they don’t understand how important it is to eat healthy foods in healthy portions and be physically active every day.  And the hill is even steeper for African-American girls, whose obesity rates outnumber their peers at nearly 30 percent. The current epidemic of childhood obesity and other weight-related chronic diseases among young people could mean we are raising the first generation of American children who will live shorter lives than their parents.

Today, children as young as 10 are being diagnosed with high blood pressure and weight-related conditions like type 2 diabetes, which, as a practicing physician, I saw only in adults.  If the childhood obesity epidemic remains unchecked, it will condemn many of our kids to shorter lives, as well as the emotional and financial burdens of poor health.

Yet, there is hope on the horizon.  Some recent studies indicate that obesity rates among American children may be hitting a plateau and even declining in some groups. Still, this is no time to rest on modest success or to leave the solution to “someone else.”  Complacency and inattention must give way to working together to aggressively fight this epidemic that has impacted our nation far too long.  Obesity is a complex issue and solving it requires that our approaches be coordinated, multi-faceted and collaborative.

Many leaders in the public and private sectors are heeding the call and creating initiatives to tackle childhood obesity.  Actions such as the designation of National Childhood Obesity Awareness Month spring from First Lady Michelle Obama’s leadership of efforts to end childhood obesity within this generation.  Other child-based initiatives are making a real difference in local communities.  Triple Play, a program of the Boys & Girls Clubs of America, teaches children how to be more physically active, eat healthier and engage in healthy relationships.  The YMCA offers Healthy Family Home with tools to make small, sustainable, powerful changes for parents and children.  These and other programs can help families and communities win the fight against obesity.

Similarly, businesses are also using their tremendous reach and resources to find solutions.  Coca-Cola’s Live Positively program, Kraft Foods’ Salsa, Salud y Sabor initiative and Nintendo’s Wii Fit games represent the entrepreneurial spirit and creativity that exists in the private sector.

Yet no company or organization can replace the role of the family in the fight against childhood obesity.  Unfortunately, many parents and caregivers themselves suffer from health disparities and lack the health literacy skills to pass on good habits to the children they love. Sadly, African-American adults, especially women, have the highest prevalence of obesity among all racial groups. We must support all mothers and families to help them learn and practice the behaviors that lead to healthy lives.  And we must also address barriers like the lack of access to healthy foods and safe places to play that might stand in the way of attaining these healthy behaviors.  

Focusing national attention on childhood obesity is an important step in tackling the childhood obesity epidemic.  But it must be a year-round effort, one that reaches all of our children where they live, study and play.  The future health of our nation depends on it.  

Dr. Richard H. Carmona served as U.S. Surgeon General between 2002 and 2006. He is president of the Canyon Ranch Institute and distinguished professor in the Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health at the University of Arizona.