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National health crisis; Our crippling epidemic of obesity?demands a broad range of responses

Call it Bloomberg's War. The mayor of New York City, Michael Bloomberg, has launched a frontal assault on ill health in his town. His intentions are important and admirable, although there are legitimate questions as to how far government should go in regulating private behavior.

Bloomberg raised eyebrows six years ago when his city became the first in the nation to ban artificial trans fats at restaurants. The reason: The artery-clogging ingredient is closely linked to heart disease.

Since then, the city has required chain restaurants to post calorie counts on menus, set guidelines on the maximum amounts of salt for a variety of restaurant and store-bought foods and, last month, cracked down on the sale of supersized sodas and other sugary drinks.

Now he's after the hospitals, working to ban sugary and fatty foods from both public and private hospitals – where, it must be said, sugary and fatty foods do not belong.

It's a crusade, and one that needs to be taken on by someone with influence. It might be better if that someone weren't a government official, but the fact is that few others are stepping up to meet what is already a crisis.

The trans fat ban has had the desired effect in New York. A study by the city Health Department showed a significant decrease in trans fat consumption. After some initial opposition, restaurant chains got on board. In fact, McDonald's and a few other chains have stopped using trans fats nationwide.

Public health, of course, is a legitimate public issue, so score one for Bloomberg. Want to do something about the soaring costs of health care? Do something about diabetes. How do you do that? It's simple, if not easy: Get people to eat healthier. Sugary drinks and processed foods have helped bring on a crisis of obesity in the country.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that two-thirds of Americans are overweight, and one-third are obese. Medical spending by obese people was $1,429 greater than spending for normal-weight people in 2006. Bloomberg says his city spends $4 billion a year on overweight-related health costs. And, no surprise, obesity is linked to serious medical conditions, including heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes and certain types of cancer.

Children are hard-hit, too. About a quarter of children ages 2 to 5 and one-third of school-age children (including adolescents) are overweight or obese, and threatened with a lifetime of struggle and illness. And that lifetime may be truncated. This generation could be the nation's first to have a shorter life expectancy than its parents'.

But it's not just health and the costs of treating the conditions brought on by poor choices in diet and exercise. It's also a national security issue.

A new study by former Pentagon leaders called "Too Fat to Fight," calls childhood obesity a national security threat. More than 25 percent of Americans between the ages of 17 and 24 are too heavy to join the military. The risks to the nation are plain.

So it would be useful, for a start, to dispense with the carping that Bloomberg is trying to create a "nanny state." In fact, he is confronting a serious and largely unrecognized crisis in the nation's life. It is urgent that we respond to it.

And some are. Health insurers understand the risk and have implemented programs to try to combat it. First lady Michelle Obama has made childhood obesity a primary focus of her efforts.

The question is, should government be directly involved, as Bloomberg is, or is it better to leave the matter in the hands of people like the authors of "Too Fat to Fight," hoping that their flares will awaken a slovenly and inattentive nation?

It's a crisis. The correct answer is: all hands on deck.