Health secretary heeding own advice on healthy living

WASHINGTON -- When Tommy Thompson's employees head for a smoking break, they watch out for the boss -- he's been known to take away cigarettes. Go to lunch with him and you'll get fruit for dessert. Don't challenge him to a race -- this 60-year-old runs a 9-minute mile.

The nation's health secretaries always preach healthy habits. But call this one Mr. Prevention: Thompson has made his mantra the lifesaving benefits of a little exercise and good nutrition, and is taking his own advice to slim down.

Preventable obesity, Type 2 diabetes and tobacco-caused illnesses cost the nation $270 billion a year in medical bills and lost productivity -- more than Medicare's entire annual budget, the Health and Human Services secretary laments.

Worse, 35 people an hour die from diseases related to inactivity or poor nutrition alone.

"What ridiculous reasons to die," Thompson sighs. And the statistics show "how out of whack our health care system is in America. We wait until people get sick before providing care."

Using the bully pulpit

To help, Thompson is using his job as a bully pulpit. In an interview, he cites as inspiration former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop's groundbreaking anti-smoking fight.

Thompson has pulled athletes before TV cameras to tell kids that playing outside is more fun than video games. He plans to push big employers to offer workers exercise time and facilities, to ask insurance companies to fund major anti-fat ad campaigns, and to start a $20 million project challenging five communities to cut their residents' obesity and diabetes.

He's mulling more creative approaches like a tax credit for getting fit, although it's far from clear how to prove such a claim.

And, partly prompted by fear, Thompson is teaching healthier living by example. His diabetic father died of a heart attack at age 61. His employees at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention made Thompson realize he was at similar risk -- overweight, sedentary, and on medication for a cholesterol level that reached a dangerous 338.

Then a new federal study showed merely walking 30 minutes a day and a modest diet cut in half the odds of getting diabetes -- and Thompson was persuaded. Since January, he's lost nine pounds, down to 200, aims to lose nine more, and his cholesterol is a healthy 183.

One cent for prevention

But it will take more than the bully pulpit to change Americans' bad habits, say public health experts who are lobbying Congress to give HHS enough money to really prevent lifestyle-caused disease.

"Right now if we spend $1, 1 cent goes for prevention, 99 cents for providing health care when you're sick," says Dr. Mohammad Akhter of the American Public Health Association. "That needs to change -- you just cannot get something for nothing."